In the wake of the controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, my comment on an artist’s right to make images of other peoples’ suffering, for artreview.com
“What effect can paintings have on politics? It’s a recurring, never-really-resolved question, since as an artform, the history of painting is one in which the question of its power as an agent of social or political comment, comes up against its awkward cultural status – its ambiguous history of exclusivity, luxury and leisure. And while painters continue, more or less self-consciously, to want to assert the medium’s capacity for addressing the political realities of the world, when it comes to picturing human suffering, particularly suffering produced by political violence, their attempts to acknowledge political solidarity often appear to be tokenistic gestures.
That, at least, was the predicament of Dana Schutz’s oil painting Open Casket (2016), on show as part of the recently opened 2017 Whitney Biennial. Schutz is well known for her fragmented, psychedelically weird, often deeply neurotic take on figurative painting. Overt references to the world of history and politics don’t get much of a look-in. So by contrast Schutz’s Open Casket takes its reference from photographs of the disfigured body of Emmett Till, the black fourteen-year-old who, in 1955, was murdered for the alleged slight of flirting with a white woman in a shop in Mississippi. Till was abducted by the woman’s husband and an accomplice, beaten, shot and dumped in a river. Images of his horrifically mutilated and bloated face, on view in the open casket his mother had insisted on for his funeral, would become an icon of the nascent American civil rights movement. Schutz’s painting flattens and schematises the key elements from the various documentary images of Till’s in his casket – his black jacket, the white shirt buttoned up to the neck, and next to it a head made up of a gnarled and bruised contortion of facetted browns, blacks and streaked…”