Randy Kennedy, New York Times, March 21, 2017
The open-coffin photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the teenager who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955, served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement and have remained an open wound in American society since they were first published in Jet magazine and The Chicago Defender at the urging of Till’s mother.
The images’ continuing power, more than 60 years later, to speak about race and violence is being demonstrated once again in protests that have arisen online and at the newly opened Whitney Biennial over the decision of a white artist, Dana Schutz, to make a painting based on the photographs.
An African-American artist, Parker Bright, has conducted peaceful protests in front of the painting since Friday, positioning himself, sometimes with a few other protesters, in front of the work to partly block its view. He has engaged museum visitors in discussions about the painting while wearing a T-shirt with the words “Black Death Spectacle” on the back. Another protester, Hannah Black, a British-born black artist and writer working in Berlin, has written a letter to the biennial’s curators, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, urging that the painting be not only removed from the show but also destroyed.
“The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” Ms. Black wrote in a Facebook message that has been signed by more than 30 other artists she identifies as nonwhite. “White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.” She added that “contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution despite all our nice friends.”
Ms. Schutz, who first exhibited the painting last year in a gallery in Berlin, has stated that she intends never to sell the work. In a statement on Tuesday, Ms. Schutz said: “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.” She added: “Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.”