Whitney Museum Says Letter Claiming to Be From Open Casket Artist Is a Fake

The Whitney Biennial. Photo: Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of Art

Update, 3/23/2017, 10:44 a.m.: Stephen Soba, director of communications at the Whitney, has written to say that the email circulating that claims to be from Dana Schutz is not from the artist. We’ll update as new information comes in.

At the opening of the 2017 Whitney Biennial on Friday, a small protest gathered in front of a painting by white, American-born artist Dana Schutz that depicted the open casket funeral of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a boy who had been lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman.

Shortly after the protest, where dissenters blocked the painting from view all day, over 25 black artists signed an open letter to the Whitney’s curators and staff written by artist Hannah Black, asking that the painting be removed from the Biennial for its co-opting of black pain and suffering for “profit and fun.” Black also asked that the painting be “destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.”

Schutz and the Biennial’s curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, defended the painting’s presence in the museum. Schutz wrote on Tuesday that she was driven to make the work because of her empathy for Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till. Lew and Locks wrote, “By exhibiting the painting we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African-American history and the history of race relations in this country.”

On Thursday morning, however, a person claiming to be Schutz emailed a statement to the Cut and other publications who had covered the news of the protest, saying that she had reconsidered her position, and is now also asking that the painting, titled Open Casket, be taken down. The Whitney Museum has since said of the letter that Schutz “did not write it and did not know anything about it.”

Here is the letter that was penned to Lew and Locks, in full:

Dear Mia and Christopher,

I am writing to publicly request that my painting, “Open Casket,” be removed from this year’s Whitney Biennial. Though it was not at all my intention to cause harm, many artists have come forward to announce that my depiction of suffering is in turn causing them suffering. I cannot rightly protect a painting at the expense of human beings.

I understand that many have attempted to defend my work in the interest of free speech, and with calls against censorship. However, the artists and writers generously critiquing “Open Casket” have made plain to me that I have benefited from the very systems of racism I aimed to critique, in a way that blinded me to what my re-presenting this image would mean to Black audiences. Particularly because, with my stamp of authorship, “Open Casket” could enter into the market and, in turn, commodify the very suffering I wished to explore. And while I agree with your curatorial statement that art can be an appropriate venue for political expression and debate, I do not agree with your implication that Black pain—what you refer to as “tremendous emotional resonance”—is a social good to be sought after through art. At least, not within a historically white-run institution, at the hands of a white artist, in an exhibit organized by a predominantly non-Black staff.

Indeed, I wanted to critique anti-Black violence and explore the real empathy I found between myself and the mother of Emmett Till, but I have learned that my re-presentation of violence against her son has proven to demonstrate its opposite: appealing to the universal truth of motherhood goes against what I have learned about the denial of motherhood, and of humanity itself, on the basis of race. I recognize that the calls for the painting’s removal have been made not as an imputation of my person or my career but of this artistic choice, this work, and the system that supports, even celebrates, such a gesture. Donna Haraway credits getting “called to account” by Black feminist thinkers for her most famous text (itself a call for sensitivity, a willingness to be wrong and a commitment to anti-racist coalition building). I want to model a willingness to learn from my mistakes, and honesty about accounting for them.

People who have been harmed by and are at risk of continued harm by systems of racist violence are in a much better position to know what is needed for restitution for that violence. If the removal of my painting has been called for by Black artists, writers, and activists, I can no longer protect an object at their expense. The painting must go.

I now join them in calling for the immediate removal of “Open Casket.” I have already promised the work will never be for sale, and I will also promise to make it impossible for the work to re-enter the public sphere. I also plan to redirect all funds from the sales of my other paintings included in the Biennial towards the Black liberation movement.

Finally, out of continued respect for those harmed by the work, I ask that the catalog and the press in the future and retroactively remove all images of the work from circulation, and replace it with images of the work’s subsequent protest.

Dana Schutz
The Whitney Denies Artist’s Call for Painting to Come Down