“Let The People See What I’ve Seen”

Dana Schutz, Open Casket (2016)

As nods from The New York Times and an outpour of Instagram posts would suggest, widespread acclaim and emerging themes of diversity seemed the consensus on March 17th as The Whitney Museum of American Art unveiled its 2017 Biennial in its seventy-eighth rendition and first ever in its new Meatpacking location. Whether a seemingly instantaneous and unanimous sense of approval could be accredited to a curatorial emphasis on highly literal depictions of subject matter or a newfound inclusion of “diversity”, rave reviews would sooner be refuted by rage — and none other than Open Casket (2016), the overshadowing contribution of White female painter Dana Schutz would be to blame.

As always, this year’s biennial sought to contextualize the present socio-political landscape of American through the lens of recent contemporary artworks. Personal opinions aside, the work in discussion is an abstract painting inspired by the historic photographs of Civil Rights catalyst Emmett Till and included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial to shed light on the perpetual cycle and omnipresence of Black oppression. Controversial is the relationship between the artist’s race and concerns of appropriation as made abundantly clear by protesters seen standing both outside of the museum and in front of the painting clothed in t-shirts which read BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE in addition to a fiery open letter to the Whitney Museum from artist and woman of color Hannah Black which expresses not only that “the painting must go” but also calls for its immediate destruction. In response, Schutz has attested that Open Casket was not presented for sale at its intended 2016 debut in Berlin nor is it now and denounces any implication of empathizing with the Black experience. To applaud the Whitney Museum of American Art for their tardy arrival to the acknowledging of the very principles upon which its institution and nation were founded seems almost as short-sighted as its condemnation.

What Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks have succeeded in doing on The Whitney’s behalf is not the removal or burning of the painting in discussion as per the request of concerned individuals like Hannah Black but rather its continued inclusion and addressing of the issue by adding further contextual information to the piece’s label. What Open Casket has achieved is the prompting of a nationwide dialogue on racism, human nature and censorship in the face of polarizing politics, something that the 2017 Whitney Biennial was not able to do on its own accord. Surpassing distracting notions of sheer controversy and hot-button value, Dana Schutz nor her painting are the real issue. The real issues are censorship and a society that derives sustenance from political divisiveness.

In the face of polarizing politics, finger-pointing and misguided patrons looking to art for answers to questions of life’s complexities rather than their acknowledgement, the saying “know thine enemy” derived from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War feels especially pertinent. Knowingly or unknowingly, not in spite of but because of its inclusion of Open Casket, this exhibition could not be a more adamant reflection of its time. While it is safe to say that As nods from The New York Times and an outpour of Instagram posts would suggest, widespread acclaim and emerging themes of diversity seemed the consensus on March 17th as The Whitney Museum of American Art unveiled its 2017 Biennial in its seventy-eighth rendition and first ever in its new Meatpacking location. Whether a seemingly instantaneous and unanimous sense of approval could be accredited to a curatorial emphasis on highly literal depictions of subject matter or a newfound inclusion of “diversity”, rave reviews would sooner be refuted by rage — and none other than Open Casket (2016), the overshadowing contribution of White female painter Dana Schutz would be to blame.

Personal opinions aside, the work in discussion is an abstract painting inspired by the historic photographs of Civil Rights catalyst Emmett Till and included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial to shed light on the perpetual cycle and omnipresence of Black oppression. Controversial is the relationship between the artist’s race and concerns of appropriation as made abundantly clear by protesters seen standing both outside of the museum and in front of the painting clothed in t-shirts which read BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE inscribed in Sharpie and a fiery open letter from artist and woman-of-color Hannah Black to the Whitney Museum which exclaims not only that “the painting must go” but also calls for its immediate destruction. In response, Schutz has attested that Open Casket was not presented for sale at its intended 2016 debut in Berlin nor is it now and denounces any implication of empathizing with the Black experience. To applaud the Whitney Museum of American Art for their tardy arrival to the acknowledging of the very principles upon which their institution and nation were founded seems almost as short-sighted as its condemnation.

What Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks have succeeded in doing on The Whitney’s behalf is not the removal or burning of the painting in discussion as per the request of concerned individuals like Hannah Black but rather its continued inclusion and addressing of the issue by adding further contextual information to the piece’s label. What Open Casket has achieved is the prompting of a nationwide dialogue on racism, human nature and censorship in the face of polarizing politics, something that the 2017 Whitney Biennial was not able to do on its own accord. Surpassing distracting notions of sheer controversy and hot-button value, Dana Schutz nor her painting are the real issue. The real issues are censorship and a society that derives sustenance from political divisiveness.

In the face of polarizing politics, finger-pointing and misguided patrons looking to art for answers to questions of life’s complexities rather than their acknowledgement, the saying “know thine enemy” derived from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War feels especially pertinent. Knowingly or unknowingly, not in spite of but because of its inclusion of Open Casket, the 2017 Whitney Biennial could not be a more adamant reflection of its time. The enemy is neither white nor black, neither Dana Schutz nor The Whitney Museum of American Art. In essence, the enemy is humankind and its incapability to acknowledge universality.

As nods from The New York Times and an outpour of Instagram posts would suggest, widespread acclaim and emerging themes of diversity seemed the consensus on March 17th as The Whitney Museum of American Art unveiled its 2017 Biennial in its seventy-eighth rendition and first ever in its new Meatpacking location. Whether a seemingly instantaneous and unanimous sense of approval could be accredited to a curatorial emphasis on highly literal depictions of subject matter or a newfound inclusion of “diversity”, rave reviews would sooner be refuted by rage — and none other than Open Casket (2016), the overshadowing contribution of White female painter Dana Schutz would be to blame.

Personal opinions aside, the work in discussion is an abstract painting inspired by the historic photographs of Civil Rights catalyst Emmett Till and included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial to shed light on the perpetual cycle and omnipresence of Black oppression. Controversial is the relationship between the artist’s race and concerns of appropriation as made abundantly clear by protesters seen standing both outside of the museum and in front of the painting clothed in t-shirts which read BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE inscribed in Sharpie and a fiery open letter from artist and woman-of-color Hannah Black to the Whitney Museum which exclaims not only that “the painting must go” but also calls for its immediate destruction. In response, Schutz has attested that Open Casket was not presented for sale at its intended 2016 debut in Berlin nor is it now and denounces any implication of empathizing with the Black experience. To applaud the Whitney Museum of American Art for their tardy arrival to the acknowledging of the very principles upon which their institution and nation were founded seems almost as short-sighted as its condemnation.

What Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks have succeeded in doing on The Whitney’s behalf is not the removal or burning of the painting in discussion as per the request of concerned individuals like Hannah Black but rather its continued inclusion and addressing of the issue by adding further contextual information to the piece’s label. What Open Casket has achieved is the prompting of a nationwide dialogue on racism, human nature and censorship in the face of polarizing politics, something that the 2017 Whitney Biennial was not able to do on its own accord. Surpassing distracting notions of sheer controversy and hot-button value, Dana Schutz nor her painting are the real issue. The real issues are censorship and a society that derives sustenance from political divisiveness.

In the face of polarizing politics, finger-pointing and misguided patrons looking to art for answers to questions of life’s complexities rather than their acknowledgement, the saying “know thine enemy” derived from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War feels especially pertinent. Knowingly or unknowingly, not in spite of but because of its inclusion of Open Casket, this exhibition could not be a more adamant reflection of its time. While it is safe to state that the 2017 Whitney Biennial may not have all the answers, it, largely in part due to the controversy surrounding Open Casket, certainly presents some complelling questions of the human experience. Most importantly, if it is safe to say that the enemy is neither white nor black, neither Dana Schutz nor The Whitney Museum of American Art, who is? Is the socio-political enemy Trump or rather society’s incapacity for metaphysical universality?