A group of protesters is demanding that the Institution of Contemporary Art in Boston remove an exhibition of work by Dana Schutz–the artist known to many for her controversial painting of Emmett Till–even though the show doesn’t include the painting of Emmett Till.
That painting, “Open Casket,” caused convulsions a few months ago at the Whitney Biennial, as a tone-deaf decision to show a white woman’s colorful painting of a brutalized black body the midst of so many white-on-black killings by police. The context added insult to injury, partly because the Biennial is still considered the rubber stamp for making it as an artist, and protesters argued that a white person’s appropriation of images of black pain “for profit and fun” “should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people.”
Schutz claimed that she was channelling sympathy as a fellow mother with Mamie Till, who had made sure the image was publicized, and the painting stayed up.
But protesters went so far as to call for the painting to be destroyed, which drew a line in sand for many who think that censorship and destruction isn’t a productive direction for anyone.
And now others feel that Schutz herself should be blacklisted from art institutions point-blank. “Please pull the show,” the group of artists, activists, and Boston community members write in an open letter to the ICA. They say that their call is “not about censorship” but about “institutional accountability.” They write that directors and curators are responsible for representing the “morals” of the “artists in their charge.” It sounds a little like the culture wars reversed, echoing conservatives’ perpetual calls for museums to remove blasphemous art. They write:
We must challenge directors and curators of cultural institutions to face the moral gravitas of reckless cultural insensibilities of artists in their charge and not waver due to the weight of their bottomlines.
The exhibition going up as described at the meeting would continue and in fact capitalize on the notoriety of said painter, not only directly benefiting her access and future opportunities, but also the institution’s. The people this is harming are of the very communities who are compelling this conversation. Meanwhile, the Till family’s courage continues to be defiled.
The part about “capitalizing on notoriety” is a stretch; the show was planned two years ago, and Schutz has already long been one of the top-selling living artists in the world, with paintings hammering in the hundreds of thousands at auctions alongside Warhol and Basquiat, so the ICA could just be capitalizing on capitalism. But until now, Schutz has also been a virtually uncontroversial artist beloved by painters and critics for her loose, masterful brushwork and vivid, emotional character portraits. The press release for the show “Dana Schutz” frames her work in terms of her contribution to the craft of painting and describes her as an artist who paints female bodies struggling against their environments. It makes no mention of the Till piece.
“I think the protesters are out of line,” performance artist Coco Fusco, an influential critic of museums’ colonialist customs, told Jezebel over email. In a thoughtful piece titled “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till,” Fusco couched the need for all voices to be welcome against the art world’s history of dialogue around exploitative artwork and shows. “True, Dana Schutz did not create her painting at the request of Civil Rights activists,” she had written, “however, the fact that she was stirred to resurrect the image of Emmett Till’s open casket is a sign of the success of the Black Lives Matter movement in forging awareness of patterns of state violence by politicizing the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and others.”
“I find the blanket condemnation of the artist to be offensive,” she stated to Jezebel. “I don’t want to even imagine in a world in which angry mobs can act as censors of art. This is not a reasonable or effective way to address institutional racism in the art world or elsewhere.”
The ICA and the letter’s authors have yet to respond for comment.