“What Does It Mean to Be Black and Look at This?” A Scholar Reflects on the Dana Schutz Controversy

Christina Sharpe says the issue at the heart of the dispute over the Emmett Till painting is not representation so much as intimacy and our relationship to violence.

“Open Casket,” a painting by Dana Schutz on view in this year’s Whitney Biennial, is derived from a photograph of the mangled body of Emmett Till in its casket in 1955, after white men in Mississippi tortured and murdered the 14-year-old boy from Chicago. Since the exhibition opened a week ago, the work has sparked furious debate. Protesters have stood vigil, partly obscuring its view. Artist Hannah Black wrote an open letter, signed by dozens of others, demanding not only its removal but also its destruction. Schutz, who is white, has defended the work, and the biennial’s curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, have called its inclusion consistent with the show’s search for “empathetic connections in an especially divisive time.” They added: “By exhibiting the painting we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history and the history of race relations in this country.”

While much of the debate has devolved into battles over representation — who has the right to depict what? — and censorship, the scholar Christina Sharpe offers another view. Sharpe, who signed onto Black’s letter, is a professor of English at Tufts University. Her latest book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016), examines representations of Black life through the lens of the wake — a powerful analytic and literary concept that connects the experience of enslavement to contemporary violence, mourning, survival, and joy.

At the heart of the current controversy, Sharpe tells Hyperallergic, is not so much cultural appropriation or free speech, but rather intimacy and our different relationships to violence. “Representation in art is an arena of conflict and confrontation for Black people,” Sharpe says. “Dana Schutz walked into that, and what we’re seeing are vigorous responses.” As for the protesters, she adds, they are “keeping watch with the dead, practicing a kind of care.”

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Siddhartha Mitter: Dana Schutz’s painting, derived from an open casket photograph of Emmett Till, has sparked a grand controversy about representation and free speech. Is this situation one you find simple to unpack or complicated?

Christina Sharpe

Christina Sharpe: I don’t think it’s complicated. There’s a long history of this kind of event: a work that produces a vehement response, and then a kind of doubling down by the artist, and sometimes by the institution. When the work goes up, it doesn’t foreclose argument — the artwork itself is a kind of argument that people then engage with. The curators and the Whitney have to make a decision about how they’ll respond.

SM: You’ve endorsed Hannah Black’s open letter that demands the work’s removal and destruction. What motivated you to lend your support?

CS: The points that Hannah Black makes about the circulation of Black death are right on the mark. The hashtag #FreeDanaSchutz didn’t get off the ground, and I’m glad. But I reject the idea that somehow the central question is that the artist needs protecting, as opposed to the issue that Hannah is centering, which is how images of Black suffering circulate for a certain kind of enjoyment and profit. We’ve seen that circulation over and over, in the history of the Whitney Biennial and the history of this country.

I’m very interested in how the painting functions versus how the actual photographs of Emmett Till function. Mamie Till Mobley makes the decision, against much advice, to have those photographs of her son published. It was not mainstream media — or white media — that published those images. It was Jet magazine. And those images had nothing to do with white consciousness. They were for Black people, because Jet was a Black publication. They weren’t meant to create empathy or shame or awareness from white viewers. They were meant to speak to and to move a Black audience.

So Mamie Till refuses to have those images not be shown. And she says (this isn’t a direct quote): Look at what they did to my son. This is my son. Look at what they did to him. She insists that the violence that he has been subject to be seen, unobscured. It seems to me that what Dana Schutz has done is to take that unobscured violence and make it abstract. Mamie Till wanted to make violence real. And that thing — white supremacy, violent abduction, murder — that Mamie Till wanted to make absolutely clear is abstracted in Schutz’s work, and in her defense of the work.

SM: So, among other things, it’s not even focused on Emmett Till anymore as much as it is re-anonymizing him.

CS: I think so, yes. I go back to an article by Elizabeth Alexander from 1994, “Can You Be Black and Look at This: Reading the Rodney King Video(s).” She talks about the recirculation of Black suffering for white enjoyment. And what does it mean to be Black and look at this? Where do you stand in relation to it? Part of how the circulation of the Rodney King videos worked — and she links it to the circulation of those photographs of Emmett Till — is that it makes you aware, as a Black person, across gender and across time, from 1955 to the present. Once you’ve seen those photos you’re quite aware, if you weren’t already, of how your body is in and out of place, in and out of space, in ways that can be violated. This painting doesn’t do that kind of work. It abstracts the very real work that those images do — traumatizing as they were to Black people.

Where the viewer is positioned in Schutz’s painting is looking into the casket. But what white people looked into Emmett Till’s casket? You see photographs of people lined up around the block to go into the church to view that open casket, people fainting. There were no white people there. So this is a question of intimacy. What is the relation to the Black brutalized body? The painter assumes an intimate relation to it. The viewer is put in intimate relation to it. Are those the same intimate relations?

Cover of Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being

In my book, I talk about “wake work.” The wake is keeping track of the ship, keeping watch for the dead. It was a way for me to think about the persistence of Black death — what Saidiya Hartman calls the “afterlife of slavery” — and the persistence of Black life, the ways in which Black people nonetheless make spaces of joy. Wake work is the work that we Black people do in the face of our ongoing death, and the ways we insist life into the present. I think it’s really powerful that those Black young people put their bodies in front of that painting. For me, that is a wake. Those young Black people are keeping watch with the dead, practicing a kind of care.

SM: In much of the debate about Schutz’s painting, the ethics that people imagine is being called into question has to do with representation and violence. You’re suggesting the crucial ethics here relates to intimacy and privacy.

CS: I don’t know about privacy, but intimacy and violence, yes. There’s an intimacy that you have as the perpetrator of violence, and an intimacy that you have as people who have suffered violence. An illustration: There’s the intimacy of, let’s say, an enslaved community; then there’s the intimacy of the master, who, when a member of that enslaved community runs off, puts an ad in the paper describing that person in all kinds of detail. That’s an intimacy of violence. So there are at least two intimacies in relation to looking at that painting, which is looking into a casket. Is it the intimacy of the woman who has now said she made the shit up [Carolyn Bryant, Emmett Till’s accuser], or is it the intimacy of Mamie Till? I’m not going to assign an intimacy to the artist. I’m simply saying those are questions one should ask of how one is positioned.

SM: The museum experience is set up, in general, to imply that there is a third position. That there is in some way a neutral position.

CS: Which we know to not be true! Who imagines they can enter into a space and enter a neutral position? Particularly if the very thing the curators say about this image, in particular, is that it speaks to the African American experience. The very logic behind its inclusion is counter to that supposed third position.

SM: I would argue that a lot of people enter with the belief that they have a neutral position.

CS: But even if I didn’t expect to be implicated by a particular image, one might still move in front of it and be jolted out of that position, right? That’s what people want art to do. But then you have to listen to the questions people are asking about how this painting is actively working on them. We know art isn’t neutral. People can make the art that they want to make. And then they have to speak to the kinds of challenges that art produces.

SM: The call has been made to remove the work. The call has also been made to destroy the work, and that idea of destruction is where a lot of people stop short. Destroying any created work feels like burning a book — it’s a very strong taboo in its own right. What is the ethics of the proposal that this work be destroyed?

CS: Speaking generally, there can be an ethical call to destroy something. Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, said — and this was a critique directed at Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog — that if he had come across a trove of atrocities perpetrated during the Holocaust, he would have destroyed it. He said it led to what he called the “obscenity of understanding.” I don’t necessarily agree with Lanzmann’s position, but it’s a position that people have argued: certain things should be destroyed because they work against making suffering particular and visible, and thereby unimaginable to perpetrate again. The nine-and-a-half hour endurance test that is Shoah does not use those kinds of images. So I can see there are a number of ethical responses — that you may or may not agree with — that call for the destruction of certain kinds of representation.

SM: That’s a general point, but now let’s go to the particular. What would destroying this particular piece of art do that would not be done by simply taking it out of the museum and putting it back in the artist’s storage unit?

CS: Because there’s always the chance of it being circulated. The destruction of the painting doesn’t stop the circulation of the image, but it does stop the ability of the artist to profit from it in a certain way. I think it’s tied to profit.

SM: But Dana Schutz has made statements about not selling it.

CS: But things change over time. People inherit, for example. I don’t have a strong personal stand on the destruction of the painting, but I respect Hannah Black’s and other people’s call for the painting to be destroyed.

SM: What do you make of the debate at this point? The sincere engagements and counter-engagements are their own body of material. Is anything new here, or are we just repeating a well-worn cycle?

CS: I guess in every iteration there’s some slightly new aspect, also because of where it lands. And it’s landing in this particular moment, under this particular repressive regime, in which anything can be done to Black people — a moment where all kinds of social safety nets are being ripped away. What’s good about this, too, is that we are seeing all kinds of smart and ethical responses to the work being included. But we’ve also seen the rest of the show fall out, and the kind of work that it’s doing. I’m thinking about the work of Cauleen Smith and William Pope.L and other folks who are in the show, and this is sort of sucking up all the oxygen.

To go back, I think it’s not enough that Schutz says the painting will never be for sale. At least part of her work seems to traffic in Black spectacle, like the painting of the fight in the elevator. That’s significant, at the time we’re living in and with what’s at stake. Representation in art is an arena of conflict and confrontation for Black people. She walked into that, and what we’re seeing are vigorous responses.

SM: Can appreciating this moment in terms of the wake assist the non-Black viewers — can the non-Black viewer think through the wake?

CS: Certainly. We’re all positioned by the wake, but positioned differently. For me it’s an analytic, a way to think about how the semiotics of the slave ship — the hold, the weather — continue to position Black people globally in certain kinds of precarity. I don’t think we necessarily look into the casket the same way. But certainly, the wake of those ships — and the wake of the ships crossing the Mediterranean today, for people in crisis, blocked from safe port — is a way to think about continued precarity and violence, and where you’re positioned in relation to it. And it can give people across race a way to understand the visceral responses to this work.

The 2017 Whitney Biennial continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District) through June 11.

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