Protesters Claim That Art Institution Has a Moral Responsibility to Ban Dana Schutz, „Open Casket” Painter

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

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.

They continue:

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

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