What are we doing when we do something and call it art? There are as many answers to this question as there are people who will ever live. We might reduce art to a statement, just as the words I write or say create a shared experience between me and my readers/hearers: art arises in the mind of the artist and then creates an experience in the minds of those that engage it. Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse has created revulsion and horror. I will here explore my own horror and revulsion.
The photograph on which Schutz based her painting has caused horror and revulsion in generations of Black Americans. Since Hannah Black first called for Schutz’s painting to be removed, I have been reflecting, not on when I first saw the open-casket photo, but, on the first time I ever heard about the Till lynching. It was 2004, I was 13; perhaps fittingly, it was fourth of July weekend. I was sitting in a barbershop with my grandmother when she handed me a copy of a news magazine which contained a story about the case. It was a short story, not taking up an entire page. Before reading the story, I remember seeing the photo, it was an iconic one, as I would eventually learn. It was black and white and there was a fellow Black boy in a bolo tie smiling, sitting next to his smiling mother. It was as normal as could be, a family photo. A scene as innocent as one’s grandmother taking you to get a hair cut. Then I read the story, certain phrases from which will be seared in my memory for as long as I live. “Kidnapped and brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman.” As I kept reading, I read that one of the men who testified for the prosecution at trial reported seeing one of the murderers rinsing blood out of the bed of his pickup truck. When the witness asked if he’d shot a deer, he replied that it was “Emmett Till’s blood.” The image of a man rinsing a fellow Black boy’s blood out of the back of his pickup truck, the sound of the words “kidnapped and brutally murdered,” the gap between the image in front of me and the images in my head rocketed back and forth through my consciousness. My grandmother hadn’t said much, she didn’t seem comfortable introducing me to this side of the world, she remarked taciturnly: “They beat him,” and then, said something haltingly about The Scottsboro boys. My grandmother died roughly a year after that day and over the years we’ve switched places. Now I’m the Black grownup struggling over when and how to kill a Black child’s innocence with the brutal truth. I imagine that, like me, she may have figured that, within reason, you are always old enough to learn about something which can happen to you. There was no open casket photo, just the word and the images bouncing around in my skull. That night I avoided sleep as long as I could, I knew it would be terrible, and I when I finally had to succumb, my brain was a bloody horror of violence and whistling.
I wasn’t outraged for Emmett’s sake. I didn’t have nearly the moral vocabulary to resent injustice in a big, abstract sense. I couldn’t begin to think about his mother’s experience, my ability to empathize with adults and imagine the pain of seeing your child, a part of you, horribly destroyed was non-existent. I knew that violence was a part of life, that sometimes “bad men” broke into people’s houses at night and killed them. Why? That they were bad men was explanation enough and I knew the police tracked these men down and locked them up, and that that these “bad men” targeted everyone. Of the Black freedom struggle, I only knew that a long time ago, Blacks and Whites couldn’t use the same water fountains, and that a man named Martin King, and another named Malcolm X, had fought this. For this, they’d both been shot. I knew the men that had done this had gone to prison, unlike Emmett’s murderers, (I didn’t know that Malcolm’s murderers had been Black men aided by the federal government) I also knew that I didn’t like hearing about King because of the way his life had ended. (Malcolm was much less frequently discussed, and in no real detail.) I knew there had been this thing called slavery, I knew it involved whipping. My engagement was therefore on the most basic level, I saw myself, and what could be done to that self because my self was Black. I didn’t go home and think about a horrible thing that happened to someone else, that’s not how I first experienced this atrocity. I went home and stared at myself in the mirror. My nose, my ears, my eyes, my hair, my skin. I felt my body splatter into a thousand drops of blood, a maelstrom of destruction. My self was a target, not simply me, but my self. The fact that I was alive made people want to coat the beds of their pickup trucks with my blood. This is an unsettling yet familiar feeling now, but I cannot begin to describe what a new, torturous and frightening one it was late at night, staring in the mirror. From that night, the sun has not quite risen since, and I doubt it ever will again.
If there is a single Black American who has not had something like this experience, it could only be because he or she has spent life in a windowless room deprived of any knowledge of the world. For the majority, I would hazard, that learning about what had been done to Emmett probably conditioned this existential destruction. I am not the person I would have been had this atrocity not happened. I am not who I would have been had someone not blown up a church one September Sunday in 1963, I am not who I would have been had Malcolm X, Martin King and Medgar Evers not been murdered for speaking up for my right to exist. None of us are. I recall hearing that most Black Americans polled during WWII were not worried about the Japanese winning the war, they couldn’t imagine being worse off, they would simply be switching brutal occupiers. I recall an African immigrant to the United States trying to figure out why Black Americans were so paranoid and seemed to have a chip on their shoulders, after being here for awhile and learning the history she observed simply: “Their hearts are broken.”
This is the level on which Black Americans experience the photo from which Schutz painted. It is one of our many open wounds, refreshed with new blood every generation. For Schutz to presume to portray this wound is therefore a source of revulsion and horror. In defending herself, Schutz argued that being a mother allowed her to empathize with Mamie Till, who decided to show her son’s mutilated body to the world. I don’t doubt that she could empathize on some level. But, Schutz is not just a mother, she’s a White mother. Emmett Till was not just a son, he was a Black son. Being a White mother means that atrocities like these can, were and are committed in the name of your children, provided those children are also White. Being a White mother means knowing that it is not your own child’s destroyed body lying in the casket. Schutz, like most White people, seems to think she can step out of her Whiteness and not only glimpse, but function as, the universal. Her Whiteness makes her think she has the power to reason herself into a position of airing another person’s wounds. James Baldwin, with typical insight, observed that “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” What questions did Schutz lay bear? What answers hid them? I do not doubt the reality and power of artistic empathy. But any true empathy would have shown Schutz that as a White person, she is part of the cabal that created the bloated, broken body in her painting. As someone for whom this act was ostensibly done, her place in the story is in the barn where Emmett was tortured and murdered, with the lynchers, not in the funeral home with his mother. Put simply, it is not morally defensible for White people to be at both ends of the charnel house, for those whose security is manufactured from ripped and bloody shards of Black flesh to presume to represent the story of this butchering to the world. Dana Schutz cannot inhabit our pain, she cannot know what it means to live day by day in the fear which such images create. The questions which are created by this reality do not encyst her soul. That is why her piece is not art in the sense that Baldwin conceives it, but exhibitionism. In showing her son’s body to the world, Mamie Till was repurposing a genre of exhibition which White Americans had invented. For decades, Whites had swapped images of lynched Blacks as souvenirs, in order to assure themselves of their absolute power over Black bodies. Ms. Till turned this archetypal object, the brutalized Black body, into a moral charge, a source of power. And it worked, her son’s death is considered to have been seminal in launching the late fifties mid sixties civil rights movement. Had Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam photographed Emmett’s body before dumping it in the Tallahatchie, the same galvanization might have happened, but the picture itself would have been a part of the atrocity, not a reaction to it, not a reconceptualization of Emmett’s blood, not the creation of a martyr; but a symbol of White power.
Dana Schutz is not Roy Bryant, but, her relation to him is not the same as mine, and her photo is an assertion of White power. She and the Whitney can hide behind artistic independence, but that’s not what’s being attacked. I’m not saying the Whitney should take down the painting, so long as it is a true expression of who they are. The people who decide what does and does not hang in art galleries are called curators. Theirs is a gate keeping role, they decide what does and does not have merit, what statements they do and do not want to have made on their walls. If Schutz had made a painting of a child being molested, or one glorifying child murder, the Whitney might have decided not to display it. There is no inherent right to display a piece at the Whitney, it is not first come first served, the curator’s job is to perform judgment. It is not for me to call for the Whitney to take down the painting, I’m not on their payroll and it’s not my job to do their judging, I do, however, call on them to become the kind of place that can recognize that Schutz’s painting is bad art. I do not call for Dana Schutz to destroy her work, that’s up to her and the statement she wants to make, I call on her to become the kind of person who would recognize that she is presuming to speak someone else’s wound, and then be moved to destroy the painting herself.
In the debate around this painting, examples of art relevant to Black suffering made by White artists have been referenced, specifically the song Strange Fruit, written by Abe Meerpol based on his reaction to a photo of a lynching. Meerpol didn’t write a poem from the perspective of the victims, he didn’t paint a picture of their hanging bodies, he engaged with it as a White Jewish American and wrote a poem about his response. The same can be said for Bob Dylan’s “Death of Emmett Till.” He asked questions of his fellow White Americans. I’m aware that the visual medium imposes different constraints, but if I consider the questions which Emmett’s butchered corpse pose for White America, none of them are uncovered by this painting. In fact, it seems that the person calling herself an artist sought to avoid these questions by hiding behind her presumed power to escape Whiteness by airing Black America’s wound. If I were to consider making such a painting, or to consider creating an exhibition of Black death, I would seriously consider whether I was simply engaging in exhibitionism, and I’m Black. I take such images seriously and appreciate that they should only be used or recreated when the statement being made is of the utmost importance, my specific relationship to them imposes this burden. A White artist has no such burden. Yes, intellectually, they may understand the power of such images and even experience them in a powerful way. But, they are experiencing them as one of the class of architects, as one who benefits, however indirectly, from the horror which created them. And if this painting has created a horrifying experience for the people that see themselves in this destruction, those whose fundamental vulnerability is made singularly manifest in it, this is a profound statement about the decision which Dana Schutz and the Whitney have made; and if either of them gave the slightest shadow of a damn about Black suffering and what it means to those of us from whom it is extracted, this painting would have never been made, and having been made, it would never have been displayed.
Between the World and Me
by Richard Wright
“And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
icy walls of fear–
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
my life be burned….
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun….”
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Never.” – Elie Wiesel
There is not in the world one single poor lynched bastard, one poor tortured man, in whom I am not also murdered and humiliated”- Aime Césaire