The NY Times and other news outlets have published stories about protests surrounding a painting at the Whitney Biennial. In this case the outrage is about the fact that a white woman, Dana Schutz, produced a painting of Emmett Till in his coffin based on photographs published at the time in Jet magazine. I don’t understand the rage, since in the civil rights era many of the contemporary images were made by white photographers or white editorial cartoonists. Still rage is a popular emotion. We see rage when a white actor plays an Asian, though people ignore the fact that acting is make-believe and very few actors are what they play. The original Captain Kirk in Star Trek was played by a Canadian. Many foreign actors now do a fine job playing Americans.
To me the real issue is that the painting is simply ineffective. If you don’t know original photographs, and I certainly didn’t, the image isn’t recognizable. Painting is a form of communication, though when it comes to more non-representational work, what it communicates may be hard to put into words. Contemporary art should communicate without the need of a dictionary or a road map. Schutz’s point isn’t at all clear. If you are going to send a message you must use the correct tools and techniques. Modern art isn’t very good at this. Even when you have a very powerful image, as you do with Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, that power doesn’t extend to an ability to send an anti-war message. If you don’t know what ‘Guernica’ is about, you won’t get the point. We do have people creating powerful images about society and politics today, most of them are cartoonists, who combine simple imagery with an ability to communicate precise ideas. Schutz doesn’t do this.
Is the killing of Emmett Till still relevant in our society? The specific crime that was committed has just about disappeared. The world in which a black man could be killed for entertainment is gone. Today race relations are complicated. Freddie Gray died in Baltimore, a majority black city, and 3 of the cops involved were African-American. We need to understand why integration of police forces hasn’t stopped the killing of African-Americans. Could someone come up with imagery to express the anger within the African-American community? Yes, but Schutz is the person. She doesn’t have the technique or the talent.
(I have purposely not included any imagery, since most will be unavailable almost as soon as posted. So, you can find the appropriate images on the day you read this.)