Empathy Shouldn’t Be An Excuse

Thoughts on Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till

Jessica De Jesus
Mar 22, 2017 · 5 min read

While I don’t believe that Dana Schutz painted Open Casket (2016) for “profit and fun,” I do believe she, the Whitney curators defending her, and the public defending free speech, have missed the core of this protest.

Schutz released a statement yesterday in response:

I don’t know what it is like to be black [sic] in America, but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension…There were many reasons why I could not, should not, make this painting … (but) art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection.

A few things here:

I’m guessing that there are several other reasons why she painted this—perhaps like ‘white shame’—but based off of her statement, she points to empathizing as a mother, and unfortunately, that’s not a good enough reason.

Schutz even confirms she’s aware of the reasons that she “could not, should not, make this painting…” but she chose to anyway, as a way to “connect.”

Hmm…

This kind of reminds me of Shailene Woodley getting arrested for protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and then saying:

…what could it look like if we learned from this instance, where it took myself getting detained to raise awareness about Native Americans? What if we used it as a catalyst for a full societal shift in the way we start thinking and treating and learning from indigenous peoples? So that in the future, it doesn’t require a non-native celebrity to bring attention to the cause.

Oof. Thank you for fighting for the cause, but the minute you used your platform to say ‘I did this… I did that…’ then follow with ‘but please, take the attention away from me and towards what REALLY matters,’ you’ve negated your participation.

You’ve made it about YOU.

Genuine empathy shouldn’t have to be defended. Empathy is meant to be an education but shouldn’t result in that person declaring or congratulating themselves as empathizers. Or capitalizing on their empathy. Schutz also clarified that the painting “is not for sale.” But we all know that capitalization doesn’t necessarily mean monetary gain.

If this was a Black artist’s work the response would be different.

In his article “The 2017 Whitney Biennial Is the Most Politically Charged in Decades,” NYMag/Vulture’s Sr. Art Critic Jerry Saltz describes Dana Schutz as:

The 40-year-old wunder-painter… who launched a hundred careers with her own wild work but who, since her exuberant emergence in 2002, proved too untamed for all other Biennial curators — here unleashes three unspeakably vibrant new works which really up her painterly game. If you think her work isn’t “political enough” see her thick, sluicing Open Casket, based on a portrait of slain teenage civil-rights martyr Emmett Till and see if the idea of Black Lives Mattering doesn’t crash in on you.

I can only imagine how painful yet unsurprisingly wearisome it must be for Black artists to read this line from that review, “see if the idea of Black Lives Mattering doesn’t crash in on you,” being attributed to a white artist commenting about something from the Black experience.

I think the Whitney curators knew this piece from Schutz was “controversial”. I think they were aware of reasons why they could not and should not show the painting, but did so anyway to create ‘a space for empathy’ and ‘a vehicle for connection.’ And I don’t even say that sarcastically. I’m sure they genuinely believe it’s empathetic and thought-provoking.

The subject of Emmett Till is unquestionably important and relevant to today. But it is the vehicle and the persons driving it, that takes so much away from its importance.

I wonder if while Dana Schutz was painting Open Casket, she felt any pain or sadness or anger or guilt. Maybe. Probably. I wonder if she tucked the canvas somewhere behind other paintings until someone noticed a corner of it and upon reveal, then pleaded with her, against her better judgement, that she should show it.

Or maybe this was the painting at the top of the stack.

And why now?

Did the recent admission of falsehood from the woman who accused Emmett Till and caused his death, spark Schutz’s creativity? Reports of Carolyn Bryant Donham’s lie started popping up in late January 2017. Timothy B. Tyson’s “The Blood of Emmett Till,” the book in which the lie is revealed, started getting reviews in late 2016. And Schutz’s Open Casket is dated 2016.

What compelled her to choose Emmett Till as a subject? Her body of work isn’t really indicative of someone who has been exploring the Black experience for some time—not that an artist needs to explore a specific subject for a period of time in order to create art about it. But words often associated with her work are words like “grotesque” or “fantastical” or “absurd.” Is that what she was actually then drawn to with Emmett Till? And not the pain and suffering of his mother?

If Dana Schutz’s painting was of the anguish in Mamie Till’s face, the grief in the twist of her posture over his open casket, and of the arms of support of loved ones who lifted her in her agony, this conversation would be drastically different.

Back in 2004, Saatchi Gallery quoted her saying:

I embrace the area between which the subject is composed and decomposing, formed and formless, inanimate and alive… Although the paintings themselves are not specifically narrative, I often invent imaginative systems and situations to generate information. These situations usually delineate a site where making is a necessity, audiences potentially don’t exist, objects transcend their function and reality is malleable .

Although this was over a decade ago, her description of her work back then doesn’t sound too far off from her work now: Reality is malleable.

I also think the “controversy” is very particular to the subject of Emmett Till. Mamie Till’s experience is specific to being a Black mother in America. In this instance, you cannot empathize with Mamie Till, especially if empathy was the basis of your painting. And you can’t really empathize with Mamie Till at all, unless you’re a Black mother in America. Unless you’re Sybrina Fulton, Wanda Johnson, Samaria Rice, Lesley McSpadden, Valerie Castile.

The very act of Mamie insisting her son to be seen like this was one of the most powerful, pure definitions and protests of love and the pain of being a Black mother in America and the pain of being Black in America. Mamie Till wanted the world to see her son and to acknowledge the whole truth, not a part of it, and certainly not interpretations of it.

The painting itself, being very much based off of the original photograph, is literally abstracting the reality of that photograph, why it exists, and why it was shown. Are those flowers that surround him? Is that a red rose pinned to the top of his trousers? The vibrancy of her colors masks the truth that is so starkly black and white:

This story is Emmett Till’s to tell.
This story is Mamie Till’s to tell.
This story is Black America’s to tell.

Not yours.

Jessica De Jesus

Written by

Art Director & Designer. Civil Rights. Lady Rights. Snacking Rights. Creative Director at Bitch Media.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade