An art furor hangs over Dana Schatz’s painting, Open Casket, on display at the Whitney Museum Biennial in New York. The work depicts 14 year-old Emmett Till in his open casket after his brutal, 1955 murder in Mississippi, the consequences of a white woman’s false accusation that he attempted to flirt with her. The hue and cry about the painting comes largely from the African-American community that charges Schatz, a white woman, with capitalizing on a black tragedy. Hannah Black, (Click) an artist and writer of mixed ethnic heritage, started an online protest. She explains, “It’s not acceptable for a white person to translate black suffering into profit and fun.” (The Whitney Clash,” The Week, April 7, 2017, pg. 26.)
I’m not sure what Black means by her statement. She makes it sound as if the painting “for profit and fun” would be acceptable if it had been created by a black artist. I don’t suppose that’s what she intends, nor can I fathom in what sense the painting can be deemed, “fun.”
Black’s error is to impose meaning beyond the work itself, a folly I’ve exposed in earlier blogs. (Blogs 8/5/14, 8/14/14, 6/27/16.) Creativity should be appraised solely on its merits, not on the race of the artist or what she ate for breakfast or whether she sucked her thumb as a child. As a painter, Schatz’s right to process a human tragedy through her medium goes without question. To insist an artist must be from the culture which inspired the art would deny countless generations of craftsmen the opportunity to express their respect for the themes of another culture. Would there be jazz without African influence? No. Would anyone deny Dave Brubeck was a jazz artist even though he was white? No. Should we reject the whole of Picasso’s work that was based upon African design because he was a Spaniard? No.
Art knows no boundaries nor should it. Art is the creative platform where minds meet and share without the burden of boundaries. The photograph of Emmett’s Tiller’s mother beside his open casket is a work of art because it touches the compassion in us all. I do not know the ethnicity of the photographer who preserved that tragic moment with such clarity, but I do know neither the gender nor color of his or her skin matters a whit.