Who Owns History?

When the artist Dana Schutz depicted the murdered teenager Emmett Till’s brutalized body lying in an open casket, she did so in solidarity with the mothers of young African-American men killed by police officers in recent years. The subsequent attack on Schutz and her alleged act of cultural appropriation reflects the decadence of a once-valuable discourse.

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NEW YORK – Take a look at the two paintings above. Both draw on iconic photographic images from the ugly and fraught history of race relations in the United States, and both are among the most discussed works featured at the current Whitney Biennial at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

The painting on the left is by a white artist; the one on the right is by an African-American. And that has made all the difference in how the two paintings have been received: the one on the left has become the center of a furious controversy. Soon after the show opened last month, Hannah Black, who identifies herself as an “Artist/Writer” and 2013-2014 Critical Studies fellow of the Whitney’s Independent Study Program, launched a petition drive (supported by dozens of her fellow artists and writers, both black and white) demanding that the painting be removed from the show. But the petition went even further, demanding that the painting be destroyed, so that it could never subsequently “enter into any market or museum.”

Although the artist’s “intention may be to present white shame,” Black conceded in her petition, “this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist.” Any “non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not [theirs]; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.”

Art in Black and White

But wait. My mistake, excuse me: It’s the painting on the right, depicting the brutalized body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and killed by two white men in 1955, that is by the white artist, Dana Schutz. The painting on the left, depicting the immediate aftermath of last year’s unprovoked shooting by a Minneapolis police officer of Philando Castille (as captured by his uncannily poised girlfriend on her smartphone) is by a black artist, Henry Taylor.