The horrific lynching of Emmet Till was immortalized in the 1955 photograph of his mutilated and bloated form. His mother had insisted on an open-casket funeral for the African American boy who had been executed for allegedly flirting with a white woman, a bold stance against the brutality of white supremacy.
Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket,” thought abstracted, conveyed the same gruesome contours of the boy’s face more than 60 years later, bringing an incident that would rather be forgotten into the spotlight. It serves as a poignant reminder of institutionalized racism and its evolution into contemporary police violence. But Dana Schutz is a white woman.
On the morning the 2017 Whitney Biennial opened its doors to the public, rising Black artist Parker Bright made his way up to the fifth floor alcove where “Open Casket” was on display. Wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words “Black Death Spectacle,” he stood in front of the painting, partially blocking it from view for hours.
The firestorm that followed the unveiling of the painting attacked the sensationalism of racist tragedy for a career boost, treating an oppressed body as a tool to awkwardly convey hollow empathy. Schutz released a statement admitting that she didn’t “know what it is like to be black in America” but the “thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension.” She is neither Black nor has she lost a child, rendering her argument of the piece as a vehicle for empathy empty. It was a slap on the face…
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