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Haunted By The Past

Back in March, there were flaring tempers and protests in response to a controversial painting at the New York City Whitney Museum’s biennial celebration. Some of these protestors stood before the picture, trying to prevent others from seeing it. Others called for the painting to be removed, others demanded its destruction.

What could cause such visceral reactions at an otherwise staid and stoic event?

The controversial painting was titled “Open Casket,” and depicted Emmett Till. This Black American boy was murdered in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The somber lessons taught by this dreadful history haunt an America still trying to come to grips with racial division across the country. The controversy over this painting, though, was not about the depiction of a figure from civil rights history books. No.

It was because the artist, Dana Schutz, is white.

A Controversial Painting And Accountability

At the end of August, in Boston, Schutz hosted a solo show of her work at the Institute for Contemporary Art. The controversial painting of Till was not included in this exhibition, but that did not seem to be enough for progressive activists. They apparently sent a letter to the ICA, which said,

“Please pull the show. This is not about censorship. This is about institutional accountability, as the institutions working with the artist are even now not acknowledging that this nation is not an even playing field… [“Open Casket’s”] absence from the exhibition does not excuse the institution from engaging with the harm caused by the work by holding Dana Schutz accountable.”

While it would be easy to applaud the protestors for their peaceful attempts at attempting to express their reasons, the fact is that this is symptomatic of a problem underlying the situation.

Notice that these activists are not merely satisfied with the absence of the painting which is viewed as a racist appropriation of a topic still hot enough to burn. They want the artist who painted one controversial image to be thoroughly boycotted, but individuals and establishments.

Schutz clearly meant her painting to call attention to the dangers of racism, and yet, for that fact, she is now being called racist. The art is not at fault; how could it be? Instead, the artist is the one who must be punished.

Ethics And Empathy

These protestors are attacking the very core of the ethics of empathy and understanding. Till’s murder has not stopped shaking the nation precisely because people of all ethnicities shudder at the horror. It is right and fair to say that many artists have meditated on Till’s case, and have shared their work inspired by his fate. If art makes a person uncomfortable, maybe it should.Eagle Painting Company

But if people want to ban it – think again.

It’s a telling phrase when somebody begins a statement with “This is not about censorship.”

Just as if one begins a criticism with the phrase, “No offense, but….”

How would that not be offensive, then?! How would it not be about censorship?

Calling on an institution to punish an artist by refusing to show any of the artist’s work is, by definition, an act of censorship. Why not just be honest and straightforward? If you truly feel your beliefs should determine what art others get to see, own it. Otherwise, why should we listen to you? You can’t even be honest about your motives.

At least Schutz was honest. She painted a picture, about a figure who was a victim of racism, to foster discussion about racism and the continuing racist tendencies of a nation that claims to not be racist.

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