In response to class conversation about Dana Schutz’s Emmett Till painting:
I think Sai brought up a good point in class that the larger issue at play is the choices of Whitney curators. This is not the first time, and probably won’t be the last, that the Biennial has drawn criticism for how it addresses issues of race and racism – or failed to do so. This year’s show represented the most diverse group of artists in terms of skin color and gender (source: http://www.art-agenda.com/reviews/double-take%E2%80%94whitney-biennial-2017/), and many works dealt explicitly with political or social issues. A review in the Times positioned the 2017 biennial as a “bookend” to the 1993 show, which was more overtly political than those in between (source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/arts/design/why-the-whitneys-humanist-pro-diversity-biennial-is-a-revelation.html). But, walking through the show, I personally didn’t sense any real commitment to socially conscious curating. For one thing, as I mentioned in class, there was one room that seemed like it had been designated as the black subject room – there were paintings and photographs that didn’t really relate to each other except in that their subject matter was primarily black people. (The artists in this room were Henry Taylor and Deana Lawson… I should note I have read more than one review praising the curating choice, one calling it “canny juxtaposition,” so maybe it’s just me?) In other cases it felt like the curators were paying lip service to topical issues (e.g. censorship, income inequality, student loan debt, violence) but not necessarily engaging with them responsibly or on a deep level. One example is the virtual reality installation that immersed viewers as bystanders to a physical attack… It felt really gratuitous and unconstructive. (This is a tangent, but I really like this quote about that piece: “But no work hit my optical WTF nerve as much as Jordan Wolfson’s virtual reality video Real Violence (2017), which consists of him bludgeoning, with baseball and foot, a man to a soundtrack of Jewish prayer. Anything but a fan of this piece, I mention it due to its stark, potential harbinger-like quality. It is sociopathic art for what, to all intents and purposes, is precipitously shaping up to be a sociopathic era” Chris Sharp, source: http://www.art-agenda.com/reviews/double-take%E2%80%94whitney-biennial-2017/)
I also think it’s important to consider that it’s not in curators’ best interests to avoid controversy. Ultimately, they are trying to sell tickets, and I would assume tickets sales went up after all the press about Schutz’s painting came out. So, what do we expect? I wish there were more museums that specifically incorporated social justice concerns into their acquisitions/curating processes. But these museums exist in a capitalist system, and they will (probably) only factor social justice into their decision-making if we as consumers force them to. I think curators are beginning to feel forced in that direction, evidenced by the demographics of the biennial, but so far it’s still more lucrative to show a problematic painting by a white artist than a topical but uncontroversial painting by a person of color. They feel the pressure to get the numbers right, but not to actually be cognizant in their choices. Here’s a quote from one of the curators, Mia Locks: “When people keep talking about racism, when people keep talking about inequity, when people keep talking about debt — when conversations come around without you bringing it up — you realize: These are the ideas!” (Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/08/arts/design/a-users-guide-to-the-whitney-biennial.html) …That doesn’t read to me like someone deeply committed to social justice. But both curators are people of color so, again, we’re ticking off boxes.
In terms of the artist’s choice to paint the image in the first place, I get that it’s not her place to re-create that image and make a name/money for herself out of it. But I don’t get the argument that it didn’t need to be a painting… I don’t see how any other art form would make it better. Below is a painting by Henry Taylor called “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!” which recreates the shooting of Philando Castille. Why is it more appropriate for Castille’s death to be made into a painting than for Till’s? The major differences are that Taylor black, and that he hasn’t manipulated Castille’s face the way Schutz did to Till’s face. I’m not saying the medium Schutz used is irrelevant; I just don’t agree that it’s the reason the artwork was considered offensive.