Adding to the firestorm surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, currently on view in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a letter, purportedly written by the artist declaring her desire to remove the painting from the exhibition, began circulating this morning—only to be quickly exposed as a fake. But not before it was picked up by outlets including New York magazine and the Huffington Post, and widely shared on social media.
On March 23, an email was sent out to various publications in which Schutz appeared to agree to protesters’ demands and ask Whitney Biennial curators Lew and Locks to take the work off view.
“I understand that many have attempted to defend my work in the interest of free speech, and with calls against censorship,” the missive stated. “However, the artists and writers generously critiquing ‘Open Casket’ have made plain to me that I have benefited from the very systems of racism I aimed to critique, in a way that blinded me to what my re-presenting this image would mean to Black audiences.”
The letter went on to vow to “redirect all funds from the sales of my other paintings included in the Biennial towards the Black liberation movement.”
Following the biennial’s public opening, a small group of protesters joined to block the view of the canvas, which was inspired by one of the most famous images of the Civil Rights movement. When Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy, was lynched in 1955, his mother bravely had an open-casket funeral, exposing the violent and brutal nature of racism in American society.
UK-born, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black objected to Schutz’s appropriation of the iconic image, arguing that “it’s not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.” In an open letter to biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, Black called on the museum to remove the canvas from the exhibition, and to have it destroyed.
The curators issued a statement standing behind their display of the work, and the artist went on the record promising not to sell it. Speaking to artnet News via email this morning, Schutz admitted that Open Casket was a difficult subject, and that “I always had issues with making this painting.”
Nevertheless, despite the potentially problematic nature of the work, the artist insisted that “it is better to try to engage something extremely uncomfortable, maybe impossible, and fail, than to not respond at all.” It would have been a remarkable turnaround, indeed, had she also issued the “Open Letter” circulated.
Asked by artnet News whether the letter was real, director of communications at the Whitney Museum of American Art Stephen Soba wrote simply, “No, it’s a hoax.”
It remains unclear who originated the letter. Here is the full text:
Dear Mia and Christopher,
I am writing to publicly request that my painting, “Open Casket,” be removed from this year’s Whitney Biennial. Though it was not at all my intention to cause harm, many artists have come forward to announce that my depiction of suffering is in turn causing them suffering. I cannot rightly protect a painting at the expense of human beings.
I understand that many have attempted to defend my work in the interest of free speech, and with calls against censorship. However, the artists and writers generously critiquing “Open Casket” have made plain to me that I have benefited from the very systems of racism I aimed to critique, in a way that blinded me to what my re-presenting this image would mean to Black audiences. Particularly because, with my stamp of authorship, “Open Casket” could enter into the market and, in turn, commodify the very suffering I wished to explore. And while I agree with your curatorial statement that art can be an appropriate venue for political expression and debate, I do not agree with your implication that Black pain—what you refer to as “tremendous emotional resonance”—is a social good to be sought after through art. At least, not within a historically white-run institution, at the hands of a white artist, in an exhibit organized by a predominantly non-Black staff.
Indeed, I wanted to critique anti-Black violence and explore the real empathy I found between myself and the mother of Emmett Till, but I have learned that my re-presentation of violence against her son has proven to demonstrate its opposite: appealing to the universal truth of motherhood goes against what I have learned about the denial of motherhood, and of humanity itself, on the basis of race. I recognize that the calls for the painting’s removal have been made not as an imputation of my person or my career but of this artistic choice, this work, and the system that supports, even celebrates, such a gesture. Donna Haraway credits getting “called to account” by Black feminist thinkers for her most famous text (itself a call for sensitivity, a willingness to be wrong and a commitment to anti-racist coalition building). I want to model a willingness to learn from my mistakes, and honesty about accounting for them.
People who have been harmed by and are at risk of continued harm by systems of racist violence are in a much better position to know what is needed for restitution for that violence. If the removal of my painting has been called for by Black artists, writers, and activists, I can no longer protect an object at their expense. The painting must go.
I now join them in calling for the immediate removal of “Open Casket.” I have already promised the work will never be for sale, and I will also promise to make it impossible for the work to re-enter the public sphere. I also plan to redirect all funds from the sales of my other paintings included in the Biennial towards the Black liberation movement.
Finally, out of continued respect for those harmed by the work, I ask that the catalog and the press in the future and retroactively remove all images of the work from circulation, and replace it with images of the work’s subsequent protest.
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