Open Casket: Erika Lindsay on the Misuse of Emmett Till
This critique comes from my own perspective, which is not omniscient—our human perspectives never are. My perspective is middle class, middle-American, white, and female. I feel that I have been well-educated as a cultural producer, have well-honed abilities as a cultural consumer, and wish to elaborate on the problematic nature of the work Open Casket by Dana Schutz. First, the problem isn’t about generally depicting or potentially profiting off of the reappropriated image of a dead black body (the latter of which I don’t condone), and Schutz assures us she isn’t profiteering, as the painting is not for sale. It goes much deeper and may be unintentional on the part of the artist; however, I am going to explain why this is unacceptable.
If an artist chooses to work with a specific subject outside of their own lived context—historical, political, experiential, social—, that artist has a duty to fully understand the context within which they are working. In this case, understanding the circumstances of the context that led to this event is important. With Open Casket, there are a number of things that are incredibly problematic. The first is that Schutz does not own her outsider perspective. This becomes increasingly important due to the circumstances surrounding the death of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old accused of flirting with a white woman in Mississippi, who was consequently kidnapped at gunpoint, brutally beaten and shot, his body thrown into a river. His mother chose to have an open casket funeral to share the horror inflicted upon her young son. This decision led to the trial of the suspected murderers, who were acquitted by an all-white jury. The woman with whom Till was accused of flirting, as well as the murderers themselves, later confessed to the truth surrounding the case.
As a white woman depicting this horrific historical event, Schutz chooses to make vapid work about herself and her perspective as a mother to a son. This decontextualization of history and further decontextualization from contemporary narratives of brutality and violence to black bodies misses the mark in an extremely serious way. Further, Schutz’s choice of abstraction as the technique with which to embody this decontextualization essentially renders Till invisible; this depiction neither registers the grief Till’s murder caused his mother, nor the importance of the context of his death to the history of the civil rights movement. In rendering Till invisible, the powerful image of his racist murder is rendered impotent, further negating the entire purpose of the open casket and the pain his mother continued to endure—a pain that Schutz cites as the inspiration for her painting.
There are innumerable ways Open Casket could have had depth, had Schutz considered her perspective not only as a mother, but also as a white woman. Instead, she chose colorblindness. In erasing her whiteness, she relinquishes the agency that that perspective could provide, instead opting for a safer, whitewashed version of a historical narrative about a mother and son. This act in turn invalidates the entire history surrounding Till’s killing—an event that had everything to do with race. Such ignorance is dangerous, especially for cultural producers who work with historical material.
I can’t help but question the curators’ decision to include Open Casket in this year’s Whitney Biennial. Art is not only aesthetic, it’s also political, and when an artist has appropriated an important historical event and depoliticized it, I feel the resulting artwork has little value. I do hope that the Whitney will reconsider the caliber of curators and artists that it includes in future Biennials; perhaps they’ll choose work of substance rather than thematically relevant work that wouldn’t even produce an interesting MFA exhibition. After all, Open Casket isn’t even provocative—it’s amateur and narcissistic.
Erika Lindsay, an assistant professor of Architecture at the University of Detroit Mercy, is currently teaching design studio as an exchange professor at Warsaw University of Technology. She is founder of a media-infused research and design practice which embraces collaboration and curiosity at many scales. Her recent work documents reappropriation of monuments in former Yugoslavia as part of ongoing research into memorial elasticity. She studied at the University of Michigan, earned a master of architecture and master of science in critical conservation and holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in digital cinema from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.