The flu had me flat on my back the week this year’s Whitney Biennial opened, so I skipped the festivities. Yet I was more curious about it than in most years, for two reasons. First, there seemed to be more unfamiliar names on the list of artists than usual; the result could be good or bad, but at least I could feel certain that the curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, had done their legwork and that, as a result, I’d see something new. The second reason was that this would be the first Biennial in the museum’s new quarters at the foot of Manhattan’s High Line park. So far, it’s seemed to me that the Whitney’s curators have had problems learning how to use the space; this would be a big test. In the days that followed, my curiosity grew as I noticed a strange disparity: The first responders among the critics were rapturously favorable (ARTnews headline: “The 2017 Whitney Biennial Is a Moving, Forward-Looking Tour de Force—a Triumph”), but the word of mouth among artists of my acquaintance was coming in negative.
By the time I got to the Whitney Museum of American Art, where the Biennial is on view through June 11, any thought of a disinterested curiosity about art—or about the art of curating—had been blown away. A few days after the show opened to the public, as everyone knows by now, a fierce controversy blew up over Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a painting based on a 1955 photograph of the battered corpse of Emmett Till, after a young British artist named Hannah Black circulated a letter calling for it to be removed, even destroyed. These days, when trolling is practiced as one of the fine arts, that last demand showed Black to be a master: The painting was not going to be destroyed, but it sure gave people something to shout about.
And shout they did, all over social media, then in the news and even on television, where the subject of art is rarely broached. There were cries of censorship and comparisons to Nazi book-burners on one side, arguments about cultural appropriation and racism on the other, and, on both sides, frequent assumptions about the other’s bad faith—an assumption encapsulated by Black’s accusation that Schutz was seeking “to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.”
But the underlying question surrounding the painting is a recurrent one, and worth discussing in more measured tones: Can the pain of others be transmuted into art? From Renaissance depictions of the torments undergone by Jesus and the saints through Picasso’s Guernica and on to the present, the portrayal of victimhood has been central to Western art. But lacking the specific religious underpinnings of that tradition, or the political credos that seemed for a time to take their place, can such an artwork be more than a hideous spectacle?