The most controversial work in the biennial show at the Whitney Museum in New York is “Open Casket,” an oil painting by Dana Schutz. It depicts the mutilated face of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was tortured, beaten beyond recognition and lynched in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, after a white woman accused him of flirting with her. Schutz based her painting on a gruesome photo of Till’s body, which his mother had insisted lie in the open coffin because “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”
Schutz has been condemned for using “Black pain as raw material.” Protesters have tried to block the painting from view and have called for the museum to remove it, even to destroy it, arguing that Schutz, a white woman, “has nothing to say to the Black community about Black trauma.”
Who owns our stories?
Is it even possible to create an inclusive story from all the disparate, angry voices in our divided country? We must start, I think, by recognizing that, while our stories are related, they are not interchangeable. Take Mississippi, for example, which was America’s poorest state in 1955 and still is today. But poverty is not an equal-opportunity oppressor: the poverty rate for blacks is twice that for whites. This is not a coincidence. It is the result of Mississippi’s long and brutal history. Any story that does not recognize that – as some recent white working-class narratives do not – is false.
Which brings us back to Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s corpse. We cannot appropriate the voices of others, but we must find ways to speak across our divisions. One role of art is to make us confront those divisions in ways that are not comfortable, as “Open Casket” seeks to do.