Artist: Dana Schutz
Date of Action: August 2021
Region: North America
Location: The Whitney Museum, New York City
Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion
Confronting Bodies: General Public
Description of Artwork: "Open Casket" is a painting by American artist Dana Schutz based on a famous photograph that is said to have sparked the Civil Rights Movement. The photograph is of the open casket of Emmett Till at his funeral after he was murdered, and shows his disfigured face. The painting is in keeping with Schutz's signature style of the grotesque, but is unusual for its overt political content and the clear correlation to an iconic source image.
Emmett Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was a 14-year-old African American boy who, while visiting with family in Mississippi, was brutally lynched after he was accused of offending a white woman in her family's grocery store. Till's body was returned to Chicago where his mother insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket.
The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the US.
The Incident: The painting was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art's 2017 Biennial exhibition in New York City. The controversy was sparked shortly after the exhibition opened to the public, when artist Hannah Black wrote a blog post calling not only for the painting's removal but also its destruction so that no one would ever be able to make money from it again. Performance artist Parker Bright staged a daily protest in front of the painting blocking its view while wearing a t-shirt with the words BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE on the back. More protests ensued.
The controversy was heavily covered in both the art press and major news platforms, with well-developed arguments coming from all sides (some of which has been excerpted here: http://ncac.org/blog/your-primer-on-the-whitney-biennial-controversy-a-timely-and-necessary-exchange)
Many consider Emmett Till to be part of the sacred historical heritage of African Americans and this particular photograph of his corpse to be iconic, and therefore off limits. Hence, Schutz's representation of it in a painting was felt to be a particularly egregious act of the ongoing phenomenon of white cultural appropriation of black trauma "for fun an profit" (cf: Hannah Black).
In interviews, Schutz said she was moved to create this painting in response to the many recent incidents of racially charged police brutality, and as a mother, in hope of eliciting empathy.
Results of Incident: The Whitney responded to the controversy by respecting the ongoing protests. However, it supported the artist and protected her work, refusing to take down the painting. Instead, the museum nurtured the broad discourse that developed around the controversy, including a well-attended panel on the subject.
2017 Whitney Biennial website
Open Casket,Sarah Schulman, ArtsEverywhere, April 12, 2017
AFTER “OPEN CASKET”: WHAT EMMETT TILL TEACHES US TODAY, by SIDDHARTHA MITTER, The Village Voice, MARCH 12, 2018 ("To stand before Till’s casket was an emotional experience. It also brought some retrospective clarity to the biggest art controversy of 2017.")
How the Dana Schutz Controversy—and a Year of Reckoning—Have Changed Museums Forever, Glenn Lowry, Adam Weinberg, and other museum leaders describe how a year of protest changed the way they view their institutions' roles, by Julia Halperin, artnet, March 6, 2018