Exhibition and Spectacle: Dana Schutz at Whitney Biennial

The Swiss newspaper NZZ (4 April 2017) as well as plenty of other global media reported on the recent protest at the Whitney Biennial. Focus point was the painting ‘Open Casket’ (2016) by Dana Schutz. An American artist who is known for at times grotesque figurative paintings in a gestural and abstract approach. The point of departure of the protest was an open letter by the artist and writer Hannah Black to the organizers alongside on-site protests by people who were trying to conceal the hanging painting with their bodies. Black’s expectation was to remove and destroy the painting as a insensitive, offensive, and non-appropriate visual expression of a white artist of the brutal murder of Emmett Till in 1955. His mother Mamie Till Mobley requested an open casket funeral to ‘let the people see what I see’. She took by that control of the legacy and the public image of son, avoiding manipulations of the image of others. By that a key narrative of black civil right movements was created. Photographs and videos of the funeral were openly circulated, and established a certain visual politic. Sturken and Cartwright argue that the photograph of Emmett Till’s corpse with violently distorted face showed the power of photographs ‘to provide evidence of violence and injustice ‘ alongside ‘the power to shock and horrifiy’ (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p.11). I would like to add that the photograph itself became an icon for black civil rights movement.

Dana Schutz’ painting is challenging the view of cultural heritage, visual politics, visual commonication, and subjective interpretation and the right to do so as a free act of art. The protest made aware that a picture is not innocent, neither the artist depending on her/his gender and race.

In context of my current interrogation with modernism, avant-garde and the pictorial reality, I am fascinated by the mutli layers of meaning and content. The subject matter (black body brutally murdered and disfigured with the confessed murders found non guilty by a white jury) is one aspect, the loaded content related to form and social reality another.

Again I do feel confronted with myth and social construction, with discourses of subjective exploration (modern art) and ‘objectively correct’ realities (postmodern).

I worked as before on visually mapping my researched information, distinguishing between historical facts, artist ambition, reaction of painting and role of media. Eventually I got severtal questions and thoughts – not having answers though. Question about inter-relationship artist, artwork, audience, and media, single artwork and advertisement.

Here my visual map (in Inspiration app)

Stefan513593 - Dana Schutz 'Open Casket', 2016 - Exhibition and Spectacle

Stefan513593 – Dana Schutz ‘Open Casket’, 2016 – Exhibition and Spectacle


… and as pdf document: Dana Schutz_Open



Conclusions and open questions:

  • Cultural appropriation:
    – Subject matters especially of other groups (gender, race, religion etc.) are at times loaded with content and are sensitive to class-, gender, and race-consciousness.
  • Sensibility:
    – to visual politics and expression of subjective feelings
  • Rational and right:
    – Who has the right to make art, what subject matter to chose? What are limitations? Or are those rather the conditions for ‘critique of its own discpline’ as Greenberg phrased it for modernism?
  • Race relationships and knowledge:
    – Is knowing limiting an artist in self-expression and subjective articulation? What distinguishes a pictoral reality from e.g. written reality?
  • Pictorial space:
    – The use of color paint versus original black/white photographs as ‘inappropriate’ because making it too ‘vivid’. Is there a absolute reality, a benchmark, that is not be allowed to challenge?
    – Abstract and gestural marks: Ignorance and subjective interrogation of solemn subject matter. How painting approach can discriminate and raise political-conscious responses. Abstract depiction as political expression?
  • Spectacle:
    – The public lynching of black by white as a ‘warning’ for other black was considered as a spectacle. What is needed and when does occur a spectacle considering the mass media communication and circulation of images in this case?
  • Advertisement:
    – Single art work in relationship to advertising campaign – a commodification of images?
  • Violence and race:
    – What is the aesthetic debate about problems associated with depiction of violence?
    – Interestingly there were two other works at the Whitney Biennial not having such ‘destroy it’ responses:  Henry Taylor, “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!, 2017 and  Jordan Wolfson ‘Real Volence’, 2017 – VR of white man beating a white and on the ground. The first one a black artist, and the subject matter of latter two white men. What does this till us about race-consciousness?
    – In the past  Robert Gober ‘Sleeping man’, 1989 depicted a sleeping white man alongside a hanging black man, not having the dramatic response as Dana chutz now.

=> Overall, I find that my a more critical and researched interrogation of newspaper or journal articles helps me to understand and contextualize visual culture better.  I have quite some questions related to gender, race, media communication, and postmodern approaches. What will come over the time of the course. This will be surely benefical for my understanding and finding a critical position.


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