Reflection: Whitney Biennial 2017

The Whitney Biennial 2017 opened up for the public on March 17th. This gallery will be up until June, despite the controversy currently surrounding one of the pieces of artwork.

This specific piece of art is an abstract painting called “Open Casket” depicting Emmett Till in his coffin. The majority of the controversy that seems to be stemming from this painting is not about the content, but the artist. The artist is a white woman, Dana Schulz. So does she, as a white woman, have the right to take it upon herself to depict an image such as this one? To interpret a monumental moment in history, that some may say does not belong to her?

My main thought in regards to this controversy is the following: Who gets to decide which individuals are allowed to discuss and explore our history? And will our history ever be properly shared and explored if we don’t all have the freedom to do so?

A recent article by Steven Litt, explores just that question. Litt gives no real stance on the matter at hand, but does supply a quote from Schutz herself that brought more light to the issue:

“I did not know if I could make this painting, ethically or emotionally,” Schutz said. “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America. But I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. I thought about the possibility of painting it [the work in the Biennial] only after listening to interviews with her. In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.” Schutz also added that the work “was never for sale and never will be.” [1]

Schutz very obviously had her concerns about creating the painting, but decided to go through with it despite those concerns. One section of this quote that really struck me was the fact that she stated the painting would never be sold. This shows to me that she doesn’t view it as a profitable piece of artwork, but as a statement for something truly important.




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