Protesters Demand That a White Artist Be Banned Because She Painted Emmett Till Once 

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston; inset, protest against Open Casket at the Whitney Museum (Photo: Wikimedia; inset via Twitter)
It's beyond unfair.

Protesters are demanding that the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston remove an exhibit by a white female artist because she once painted a picture of Emmett Till — even though the exhibit does not even contain that Emmett Till painting. 

Some background: The artist, Dana Schutz, initially came under fire for Open Casket after the painting appeared at the Whitney Biennial in June, according to an article in Art World. The painting depicted the open-casket funeral of Emmett Till, a black boy who was murdered after a white woman accused him of flirting with her, and critics said it was offensive because it amounted to a white woman’s profiting off of the tragedy of a black boy. Some of these critics spent hours standing in front of the painting, blocking it from being seen, and demanded that the museum remove it “because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time,” according to a statement.

The Whitney Biennial, however, refused — and the curators released a statement claiming that they simply “wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history and the history of race relations in this country,” adding that they “believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.”

Perhaps in an attempt to avoid a similar controversy, the Institute of Contemporary Art held a three-hour meeting with some critics of Open Casket to discuss their concerns before its own Schutz exhibit opened this week. What’s more, it decided to not include that particular painting in the show. 

But if avoiding controversy was its intention, then it failed — because a handful of critics are saying that not including the painting is not enough. 

“We understand that the painting itself will not be shown and its exclusion is to be addressed as a wall label,” some critics stated in an open letter to the museum.  “We don’t find this sufficient.”

“This is not about censorship,” the letter continues. “This is about institutional accountability, as the institutions working with the artist are even now not acknowledging that this nation is not an even playing field. . . . [Open Casket’s] absence from the exhibition does not excuse the institution from engaging with the harm caused by the work by holding Dana Schutz accountable.”

The critics’ letter claims that the ICA’s showing any of Schutz’s work essentially amounts to both it and Schutz benefiting financially from the tragedy of Emmett Till. Now, of course, some people might suggest that the fact that the painting of Till will not even be in the exhibit means that neither the museum nor Schutz could possibly be making money from the tragedy that it depicts. You know, because it’s literally not even going to be there. 

But the critics have a different view. They claim that it still amounts to the museum’s taking an opportunity to “capitalize on the notoriety of said painter, not only directly benefiting her access and future opportunities, but also the institution’s,” and that the museum did something very wrong by refusing to meet all of its demands.  

Look. Even if you do think that it was wrong for Schutz to have painted what she did, you have to see how ridiculous this is. I mean, to suggest that the fact that Schutz painted it as a white lady was so severe an offense that no museum should ever be showing any of her work at all? That she should never make any money off of any of her paintings at all? Because, following the letter’s logic, that’s essentially what these critics are saying. Yes, it did have a certain list of demands that allegedly could have made the ICA’s exhibit permissible  – including a requirement that the museum openly declare that Schutz’s painting contributed to “a long tradition of white supremacy obscuring and ultimately erasing narratives of the continued genocide of Black and indigenous peoples” and host an on-site black-history panel — but the truth is, none of those demands could have ever changed the fact that Schutz will always have “notoriety” because of Open Casket. That will always be the case, and if that “notoriety” in itself is what makes all of her art unacceptable to show, then it would seem that all of her art will always be unacceptable to show, no matter what anyone does. To them, her sin was so great that it must follow her for the rest of her life; she no longer deserves to have any sort of career — except perhaps for a career that’s completely controlled by an exhaustive list of demands because of it. 

I don’t know Schutz personally, but I highly doubt she intended to offend with her painting of this particular work, and literally demanding her retirement and the destruction and/or hiding of all of her work forever over an accidental offense seems like it’s beyond unfair.


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– Katherine Timpf is a National Review Online reporter.