Artist Dana Schutz has come under fire for painting a portrait of Emmett Louis Till laying in an open coffin in her piece ‘Open Casket.’ Emmett Louis Till was a 14-year-old African-American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after it was said that he offended a white woman in a grocery store.
Emmett Till, who is one of the many innocent black faces that died during the cusp of the civil rights movement faced a brutal killing and later his murderers were acquitted. Years after his death the woman in the grocery store admitted that she had fabricated her testimony and that Till had not made any verbal or physical advances towards her in the store. When he died Till’s body was returned to Chicago where his mother insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket to show the world the brutality of the killing.
The ignorance and insensitivity of Schutz’ work and the disregard to the offence that it has caused has led to many critics slamming the artist and her work, questioning her intentions. Protesters who want to boycott Schutz demanded that the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, where Schutz’ exhibition is being displayed, remove the artist’s exhibition altogether, even though the ‘Open Casket’ painting is not included.
The painting was one of the works included at the Whitney Biennial exhibition in New York this year where critics spent hours standing in front of the painting, blocking it from being seen and demanding that the museum remove it with some of them calling for the painting to be destroyed. The Whitney Biennial have refused to get rid of the painting, stating that they “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.”
The problem is, a white person translating black suffering into art, and ultimately something that they can profit and gain notoriety from, emphasises the suffering instead of respectively acknowledging its significance. Even though the painting is not included in this particular exhibition by Schutz, the painting has still been revealed and seen by the world, causing a rise in fame for the artist and illustrates another example of white voices telling black stories.