‘Let the people see what I have seen’, said the mother of Emmett Till. In 1955 her son, a 14-year-old black boy from Illinois, was falsely accused of flirting with a white woman, tortured, murdered and dumped in a river by the woman’s husband and his half-brother, both of whom were summarily acquitted by a white jury. The photographs taken of Till’s corpse – battered and bloated beyond recognition – succeeded in shaming and inflaming a nation: he became an icon of the civil rights movement.
The recent police shootings caught on camera, and the response from Black Lives Matter, gave Dana Schutz – a New York-based painter of considerable talent – the idea of bringing up Till again. Her painting, ‘Open Casket’, is now hanging at the Whitney Museum of Art in an exhibition curated to highlight ‘racial tensions, economic inequities, and polarizing politics’. It has provoked a furore. Protesters – mostly artists themselves – staging a sort of vigil have stood in front of the canvas and blocked it from public view, while others have petitioned for it to be removed and destroyed. Schutz herself has been vilified – as if a white woman painting this subject were perpetuating the original crime.
The protests seem to attribute an almost magical power to art. And so do the reactionary cries against censorship coming from journalists – it is a worn-out assumption that every gesture made in art’s name is sacred, ignoring the fact that not much of what is conceived as art nowadays will ever be worth the cost of its materials.
One side claims heroically to defend freedom of speech; the other provocatively dismisses ‘white free speech and white creative freedom’ as ‘founded on the constraint of others’. There is plenty at stake in this argument. But both sides seem to be missing a more interesting point: the overlap between morality and aesthetics.
Some critics have been accused of cowardice for sidestepping the argument and commenting only that they thought the painting was no good. But actually this gets straight to the point: if it were a better painting, its subject-matter would be more acceptable; indeed its acceptability would be the very proof of the art – at least, it is nice to believe that the best art goes beyond argument.
But does the best art ever, like this, tag itself to social and political issues? It has only been tried relatively recently, since Jacques-Louis David glorified Marat, and Goya commemorated the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s forces. And even they struggled. In comparison with his Disasters of War etchings – that timeless catalogue of human depravity – Goya’s specifically historical painting, ‘The Third of May 1808’, seems imaginatively stunted; and despite its grand scale it leaves our imagination less room to manoeuvre.
It is even trickier for painters now, since they are no longer needed to show us that ‘this is bad’ and ‘this is worse’ – a photograph can outrage us directly. The protesters complain that Schutz uses ‘Black pain as raw material’; and, putting their racial assumptions aside for the moment, they are not altogether wrong. Clearly Schutz wanted to borrow something of the emotional reaction that the photographs of Till naturally, and instantly, elicit. It really must be asked, for art’s sake: what does a painting like Schutz’s add?
Schutz is far more sophisticated than to have wanted merely to shock. She would not have meant to compete with the horror in the photograph, let alone turn it into ‘profit and fun’ as the protesters suggest. Her image is surely meant to be more contemplative, both of the subject-matter and of how the photographs have conveyed it to us. But it may very well have been her artistry – or her artiness – that really caused offence: in her distorted brushwork there is a clear stylistic echo of Francis Bacon, and to use the damage done to Till’s face as an opportunity to experiment with modernist stylistic gambits really is impertinent. I only wish we worried more often about self-regarding stylization, and how artiness can be an obstacle to truly artful communication. Goya’s etchings are so powerful – more, in their own way, than any documentary photograph – because they are so stark, because he would not allow himself to waste a single mark in representing what had to be seen.
But the arguments over the painting are futile if we won’t decide what art is for or what is good about it, as Tolstoy insisted we do. Schutz’s protesters actually are, in a strange way, trying to ask these questions; but the answers they propose are abominable. Categorising subjects as ‘Black’ (always capitalised) or ‘white’ (never capitalised), and warning about ‘white’ artists appropriating ‘Black culture’, they profess a doctrine of ethnic predestination in cultural experiences and expressions that would drag us back – unwittingly – to Wagner. For Wagner, Judaism was ‘the evil conscience of our modern Civilisation’, while for Schutz’s protesters it is whiteness. For Wagner, the Jew could never gain the slightest ‘glimpse into our [German] essence’, and so Jewish art would always be characterised by a ‘soulless, feelingless inertia’; for Schutz’s protesters, the ‘white gaze’ cannot move from its ‘habitual cold calculation’, so ‘white’ art is all ’empty formalism or irony… a pastime or a therapy’. And it will only improve when white artists begin working in a ‘reparative mode’ by accepting exclusivist identity politics and intersectional theory.
These aggressive ideas must be resisted, not primarily on trumped-up charges of censorship – concerns about censorship would be better directed towards the case of Zehra Dogan, who has just been sentenced to years in a Turkish jail for depicting military actions against Kurds in an unfavourable manner – but because they are fundamentally anti-art. Art, if it is to affect us as it used to, cannot be made in explication of political agendas. As Goya’s late work goes to show, the best art may accommodate bitterness and disillusion, but only the deepest generosity of spirit can carry it through. Art is compassionate.
‘Open Casket’ seems disappointingly simplistic and contrived, by Schutz’s usual standards. But ultimately she deserves support even here because, unlike the protesters, she stays true to Tolstoy’s basic premise that art should be ‘a means of communion among people’.