And a statement soon came from the artist herself. In a letter published in The Guardian
, Schutz wrote, “I don’t know what it is like to be black 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.”
Schutz also stated that the painting will not be for sale. The career bump that comes from being selected to show in the biennial, however, suggests that she may well still enjoy financial rewards as a result of her inclusion in the exhibition.
The controversy surrounding this work is, at its core, about the failure of the art world to truly represent black humanity, despite its recent insistence on “diversity.” The issue is deeply rooted in the American experience, and the failure of our institutions—governmental, cultural, and so on—to correct this country’s original sin and the discrimination and violence against black Americans that continues today.
If the Whitney and other museums are committed to inclusion, then they must admit that their roles in the erasure and suppression of blackness from visual culture informs every painting of a black body that hangs on their walls. Taking responsibility for that history means properly contextualizing sensitive works that they decide to mount in their exhibitions.
In the discourse surrounding the recent, wonderful retrospective of
’s work at the Met Breuer
, rarely did I hear the show spoken about in the context of the Met’s historic exclusion of black artists from its galleries. Nor did I hear the exhibition tied to a much larger conversation that began with the Met’s 1969 disgrace, “Harlem on My Mind,” an exhibition that led to black artists like
protesting on its steps.
It was equally stunning and demoralizing to see, during the opening of MoMA
’s recently mounted exhibition, “Unfinished Conversations: New Work from the Collection,” that works by
were not already included in their collection. If museums are serious about inclusion, then it must become a part of their missions, collecting practices, staffing, and programming.
In the context of American culture right now, it seems particularly problematic for Schutz, in her most political work yet, to use the black body as a symbol to communicate sympathy and protest racial violence. This is a country, we should remember, in which 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump, who for many represents a continuation of the policies and actions that marginalize black Americans.
We see no end of images showing the victims of recent lynchings by police officers, circulated as they are on social media sites, the objects of spectacle and consumption, as Parker rightly noted. What we rarely see, however, are depictions of the white Americans who have committed acts of violence against black bodies.
Where are the images of Till’s murderers? Why aren’t their names and faces etched into the soul of this nation? Why didn’t Schutz paint Carolyn Bryant in order to interrogate race in America? Or the 53 percent of white women who voted for white supremacy?