What does it say about the Whitney Biennial that the only artwork people are talking about outside the insular art world is a representational painting of a historical subject? Not a word about William Pope.L’s Claim, a room-size cube studded with some 2,755 slices of real bologna intended to represent a fraction of New York City’s Jewish population, in the center of each of which is a daub of paint that, if you look very closely, contains a photo of—maybe—a New York Jew? Or Jon Kessler’s Exodus, an endlessly circling procession of small, kitschy figurines that is supposed to make us think about refugees’ travels? Or Cauleen Smith’s whimsical banners bearing wanly humorous slogans like “No Wonder I Go Under”? After wandering about for an hour, I was ready to agree with Frances Stark, whose painted reproduction of Ian F. Svenonius’s manifesto Censorship Now!! covered several walls: “Art is in a lost state now. It’s a mess.” Svenonius puckishly suggests, “censorship would…give it its power back.”
Maybe he’s onto something. Because that old-fashioned painting everyone is talking about, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, owes at least some of its power to calls for its removal and destruction, as well as to the political questions it raises about race in and out of the art world. As you probably know by now, Schutz is a 40-year-old white woman, and the subject of her painting is Emmett Till, the black 14-year-old from Chicago savagely murdered in 1955 for supposedly whistling at a white woman on a visit to Mississippi. (The woman has recently admitted the story was false. Her husband and the other killers were acquitted of the murder.) Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, famously kept his casket open at his funeral, and the iconic photograph of his mutilated body in Jet magazine helped spark the civil-rights movement. You can see why some black artists are angry, why they feel it’s their story to tell and why it’s infuriating to have it depicted by a white artist for whom it would seem to be just another aesthetic subject. As the black British artist and writer Hannah Black wrote in an open letter to the Whitney calling for the painting to be destroyed, “Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture.” Schutz says that as a mother she can identify with Mobley’s loss.
Calls for censorship and destruction are always a big mistake. The high-minded argument is that freedom of expression is a bedrock principle of an open society, but there’s a more practical argument too: The main thing such calls do is increase the allure of the work under attack, whether it’s Ulysses or Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret or Open Casket. I wish right-wing Christians would call for my books to be removed from public libraries. Then lots more people would read them. Like Chris Ofili of the elephant-dung-decorated Madonna, Dana Schutz is now a household name.
Further, attacking Schutz for making art out of black lives seems to deny the very ground on which art rests, the communicability and permeability of human experience. If, as James Baldwin said, American history is black history, how can it also be the possession of black artists only? Any work of imagination is bound to use the lives, experience, and history of others, and sometimes there is indeed something voracious, even cannibalistic about that. When Flaubert supposedly said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” was he claiming empathy with that foolish, trapped provincial housewife or celebrating a hostile takeover? Or both? Either way, you can’t reduce art to the creator’s autobiography. There have been too many cases in which authors who appear to be writing from within a particular identity turn out to belong to another. “Danny Santiago,” who won a prize in 1984 for his ostensibly Latino novel Famous All Over Town, was actually the well-born WASP screenwriter Daniel James. The pseudonymous Elena Ferrante was thought to portray the slums of Naples so intimately she had to have grown up there herself. If the investigation of her identity by Claudio Gatti is correct, she actually came from a middle-class Jewish family and grew up in Rome. But her novels are still exactly what they were before we knew who wrote them, and Dana Schutz’s painting is good or not regardless of her race. (I thought it was too pretty for its subject, although the gouged parts, not visible in reprints, complicate that a bit.)
The concept of racist or colonial appropriation can be used to attack any kind of borrowing or syncretizing, whether it’s white women wearing cornrows or Chinese food being Americanized or anybody not an Indian practicing yoga. (This last is especially odd because, as Michelle Goldberg details in The Goddess Pose, yoga as practiced in the West was largely invented out of many sources by Eugenia Peterson, a Russian woman who called herself Indra Devi.) What those arguments miss is that culture is always mixed, never pure. Native Americans got their horses from the Spaniards, and early American feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton were inspired by Iroquois women. Still, it’s hard to argue that white people haven’t reaped the lion’s share of the profits in the supposed free-for-all of cultural exchange. Big Mama Thornton did well with “Hound Dog” (written by Leiber and Stoller, two Jews), but it was Elvis who became a worldwide sensation.
The cold reality is that artists of color, like women artists of any race, have far too little space in our culture: They get less work, less attention, less money, and less fame, and they are put into identity boxes while white people, especially white men, get free range. And on that level I can relate—and how!—to Dana Schutz’s critics. I constantly feel how little space women have—in the arts, politics, scholarship, even our own lives—and I keenly resent the loss of any inch of turf. I feel it even when I see all-male performances of Shakespeare, even though Mark Rylance was a genius as Olivia in Twelfth Night, and I know the plays were written for male actors. Actresses already have so few opportunities to shine, I mutely protest. Must men have everything? Maybe it’s the same for race. As a clever young white woman I know put it, “Sometimes white people should just hush”—even if they don’t have to.