This morning several news outlets — including Artsy, Frieze, and Out Magazine — published parts or all of an open letter allegedly written by artist Dana Schutz asking the co-curators of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, to remove her controversial painting of Emmett Till from the exhibition. It soon became clear that the letter was fake.
“It’s a hoax,” Stephen Soba, the Whitney Museum’s director of communications, told Hyperallergic on the phone. “It’s certainly well written, but we asked [Schutz], and she had nothing to do with writing it.” He added that the museum is still trying to determine the source of the letter.
Schutz has come under fire for “Open Casket” (2016), a painting based on photographs of the disfigured 14-year-old boy in his casket. Protesters have blocked visitors from seeing the work at the museum, while others have demanded its removal and even its destruction. As recently as yesterday, however, Schutz had said in interviews that she felt the painting should remain on view, making the apparent sudden change of position expressed in the open letter seem all the more suspect.
“I understand that many have attempted to defend my work in the interest of free speech, and with calls against censorship,” the fake letter reads in part. “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.”
The fake letter, which as of this writing is still posted on several sites as authentic, is included below:
I am sending you this letter as your publication recently covered a protest of my painting “Open Casket,” included in this year’s Whitney Biennial. I hope you will consider presenting this statement I have written to the show curators as a followup to those pieces.
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.