Emmett Till painting ‘Open Casket’ raises concerns of cultural appropriation

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 protesters 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 that first appeared in Jet Magazine galvanized support for the 1960s Black Civil Rights Movement, at the insistence of Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley. She believed it was important for the world to see the reality of racial violence against Black children.

In an interview, Schutz 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.” Schutz shared that as a mother she, too, empathized with Till Bradley.

Schutz, and many White mothers, may have had their moments “empathizing” with Black mothers, but it is important to realize that although Travyon Martin, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown were the same age as their children, none of those mothers—urban or rural — live in the daily possibility of their son not coming home or that child being gunned down because of the color of their skin. Or worse, being gazed upon like “road kill” (Michael Brown).

“Being a mother doesn’t hold water,” said 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 to have the talk about what to do if stopped by a police officer?”

“The talk” is a heartbreaking necessity, which is needed for our children’s survival outside the home. Sadly, the need to have the talk robs children of enjoying their life, as it did 12-year old Rice. Undoubtedly, the talk does [physical] and emotional harm to a child’s self-esteem and sense of innocence and fairness in the world.

Schutz is a mother who feels angst and outrage about how Black youth are policed in this country. She expresses her empathy, verbally and artistically, and represents all mothers, ignoring how such a claim essentializes and erases the particular pain, history and context of how and where the pain of a Black mother— like the mother of Trayvon Martin — is derived.

For example, in the film sensation and Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller The Help, the White protagonist, (“Skeeter”) helps her family’s Black maid by exposing racism in 1960s Mississippi, although the 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 best how to represent and tell the pain and history of Black people.

Some critics suggested that Schutz should have done what many artists do regarding their artwork by merely not offering the explanation but by letting viewers find their own interpretation. I’m glad Schutz didn’t do that, because such an approach doesn’t resolve the issue of whether or not White artists have a right to tackle thorny issues concerning race. I feel White artists should do so more often, as it highlights it as an American problem and not only the province of 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 featuring 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; protesters are not visible as you see the tomato-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.”

She continued: “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 acknowledgment 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 that not only culturally appropriates a tragedy, but she violently dehumanizes Emmett Till, too. It is what Emmett Till’s mother wanted the world to see.