Emmett Till painting raises concerns of cultural appropriation

by Rev. Irene Monroe

When artist Dana Schutz presented “Open Casket,” an abstract painting of Emmett Till’s open casket-the Chicagoan 14 year old African American male teen lynched  in the  Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1955- she could not have fathomed the conflagration that erupted.

The painting hangs at the Whitney Museum in New York City but under the daily watchful eye of protestors blocking its view they termed the “black death spectacle.”  Some protesters sent letters of grievances to the museum curators requesting the painting be taken down and others have flatly demanded the destruction of it.

Because Schutz is white queries abound about cultural appropriation and exploitation, asking whether a white artist can sensitively and appropriately depict black pain.

The Whitney Biennial aims “to gauge the state of art in America today.” Schutz’s abstraction was inspired by the infamous photograph of Till’s mutilated corpse. The photo first appeared in Jet Magazine, that galvanized support for the 1960’s Black Civil Right’s Movement, at the insistence of Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, who wanted the world to see the reality of racial violence on black children.

In an interview Schutz’s shared that the genesis for her painting was the reminder of the recent rash of unarmed black males shot by police across the country, and that “the photograph of Emmett Till felt analogous of the time: what was hidden was not revealed.” Shutz’s shared that as a mother she, too, empathized with Mamie Till Bradley.

While Schutz, and many white mothers like her, no doubt perhaps had their moments “empathizing with black mothers,”realizing that Travyon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, to name a few, are their children’s age, none of their children, however,  reside- urban or rural-  in the daily reality of the possibility of no returning  to them or  being gunned down because of the color of their skin, and then gazed upon like “road kill” (Michael Brown).

“Being a mother” doesn’t hold water,” Corinne Cooper, a white Southerner from Winston-Salem, NC told me. “Schutz may carry a concern for her children’s safety but has she had “The Talk” about what to do if stopped by a police officer?”

“The Talk” is a heartbreaking one which is needed for our children’s survival outside the home. Sadly, it robs them their life- like it did 12-year old Tamir Rice – of enjoying childhood. And, undoubtedly, it does psychic and emotional harm to their self-esteem and sense of innocence and fairness in the world.

Because Schutz is a mother who feels pangs of angst and outrage about how black youth are presently policed in this country, she also feels her expressed empathy- both verbally and artisitically- represents all mothers, ignoring how such a claim both essentializes and erases the particular pain, history and context of how and where black mothers’ pain – like that of Trayvon Martin’s mother’s -derives from.

For example, like the film sensation and bestseller, “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett the white protagonist  helps black maids -because of the love she had for her own-  to expose racism in 1960’s Mississippi as if a civil rights movement isn’t already afoot. Schutz and Stockett with all their good intentions reinscribes the trope of the “white rescuer” suggesting they know how best to represent and tell black people’s pain and history.

Some critics have suggested that Shutz’s should have done what many artists do concerning their art work by merely not offering explanation and let viewers interpret. I’m glad Schutz didn’t because such approach doesn’t resolve the issue whether white artists have a right to tackle thorny issues concerning race. I feel white artists should do so more often than not, highlighting it’s an American problem and not the province of only racial groups.

Painter Norman Rockwell, for example, depicted  a horrific moment of our racial past with his famous 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With” with Ruby Bridges, a 6-year- old African American girl, escorted by deputy U. S. marshals during New Orleans 1960 desegregation crisis. The painting invites the viewer’s point of view  because protestors are not visible as you see the smashed and splattered wall behind Bridges written with the n-word and “KKK.”

Cambridge academician and artist Estelle Disch, who’s white, doesn’t shy away from racial issues and offered her advice:

“If white artists are going to deal with race, we need to be ready to take the heat and be accountable if we offend people, and then be ready to make things as right as possible, Disch told me.  “In the Whitney case, the artist could do the right thing and ask that her piece be removed. An empty space on the wall would make a statement in itself. And she could post an acknowledgement and apology where the painting was.”

Schutz refusing to acknowledge that her painting “Open Casket” aestheticizes black pain and suffering as a piece of art not only cultural appropriates a tragedy, but she violently dehumanizes Emmett Till, too – which is what his mother wanted the world to see.

Rev. Irene Monroe View more

Rev. Irene Monroe
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. One of Monroe’s outreach ministries is the several religion columns she writes - “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper that circulates widely throughout New England, “Faith Matters” for The Advocate Magazine, a national gay & lesbian magazine, and “Queer Take,” for The Witness, a progressive Episcopalian journal. Her writings have also appeared in Boston Herald and in the Boston Globe. Her award-winning essay, “Louis Farrakhan’s Ministry of Misogyny and Homophobia”, was greeted with critical acclaim. Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American , queer and religious studies. As an religion columnist I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Because homophobia is both a hatred of the “other ” and it’s usually acted upon ‘in the name of religion,” by reporting religion in the news I aim to highlight how religious intolerance and fundamentalism not only shatters the goal of American democracy, but also aids in perpetuating other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism and anti-Semitism.”

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