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A toddler’s haphazard curls and flush cheeks are captured in a sweet but banal painting on view at last week’s LISTE art fair in Basel. The simplicity of the portrait, by artist Hamishi Farah, takes on new meaning when the title claims it. “Representation of Arlo” (2018) is a rendering of artist Dana Schutz’s son and a response to her painting “Open Casket” (2016). “Open Casket” was based on a funeral photo of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was tortured and murdered by two white men in 1955. Allegedly based on a photo found on the internet, Farah’s responsive work raises questions of consent — in historical and contemporary contexts — and whether the work is an appropriate reaction to Schutz’s political painting.

What does it mean to paint another person without consent? Art historically, Farah occupies a crowded room of artists who have acted in a predatory manner, adopting images from both private and public spaces and sources. Walker Evans’s Subway Portraits series is regarded as remarkable, despite the fact that he obtained those images by attaching a camera to his chest, lens peaking between coat buttons. If praising the images is considered an approval of the process, just moving through the world today provides consent for our likeness to appear in art production and be appropriated for public consumption and purchase. It is possible Farah found Arlo’s image within a private social media account intended for an intimate community. Arne Svenson obtained images of his subjects without their knowledge while they were in their own homes in his Neighbors series. He was sued and emerged victorious, both in the courts and in his career, successfully exhibiting the photo series subsequently. Is “Representation of Arlo” different? (Svenson’s series also included children, if the age of the subject is a point of contention.)

“The painting is very different from the photograph. I could never render the photograph ethically or emotionally,” Schutz told artnet News in 2017, discussing the differences between the photographs of Till’s open-casket funeral and her painting “Open Casket.” Schutz’s version of the photo includes a vermillion flower on a cummerbund and distinct brushstrokes in place of Till’s viciously disfigured face. Following inquiries from Hyperallergic, Farah and his gallery Arcadia Missa did not elaborate on where the artist found the image of Schutz’s son. Attempting to retrace Farah’s digital steps and locate the original photo used for the painting, I found two blurry images of Arlo, neither matching Farah’s painting. Perhaps, like Schutz, Farah did not copy a specific photo but synthesized and adapted several.

In a New York Times interview, Schutz said,

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. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.

Working from an understanding that motherhood interrupts classifications of race, Farah could claim a similar structure, one of a son-to-son connection. By inhabiting that space, Farah can gauge who will come to whose aid and protection. Who will claim that someone’s likeness is too sacred to reproduce or steal? In the same Times interview, Schutz added:

Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.

The claim is problematic because Schutz seeks to inhabit the grief of a black mother in the 1950s whose son was murdered without justice by painting from photos. It is a shallow entanglement for its creator, and Farah exposes that. In the spirit of bell hooks, Farah returns us to the question: for whose gaze is either painting intended?

In Schutz’s defense of her work, she correctly acknowledged that the suffering experienced by Mamie Till has no boundary. Till bravely chose to show the public the brutality done to her 14-year-old child. The image of that pain cannot be decoupled from its context. Her act inspired other acts of resistance and garnered allies across racial divides. This visual call-and-response resonates across the decades and with artists today, reminding us of the potential terror of making and looking at images.

Based on the description of painting photos of a child from an arguably public space, without a parent’s consent, in response to a politically charged event and presenting it in a contemporary art context, it would be hard to determine if I am referring to “Open Casket” or “Representation of Arlo.” Like Roland Barthes in The Death of the Author, Farah makes clear that author’s intent is swiftly replaced by the reader’s interpretation. Just as no text or painting is neutral, neither is the reader, and his or her social experiences will make meaning with the marks of class, gender, and race. If Schutz’s goal was to express pain and empathy and give life to a conversation she perceived as relevant to a new context, Farah has aided her objective. Miraculously, Farah’s Arlo reminds us of Till, the context, the pain, and the possibilities of meaning read by different “authors.”

Hamishi Farah, “Marginal Aesthetics” (2014) (screenshot via artist’s website)

In Farah’s video artwork “Marginal Aesthetics” (2014), each new incarnation of an image is said to replace the previous version, suggesting that the artist was conceptually thinking about the commodification of images and pain well before “Open Casket” was made. “Representation of Arlo” may be read as predatory or a spectacle, but he is working with the same tools afforded other artists, including Schutz. If art allows viewers and creators the opportunity to understand what it is like to step into another’s shoes, Farah has made a pair that fits Schutz but is extremely uncomfortable.

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Kealey Boyd

Kealey Boyd is an art historian and writer based in Denver.

37 replies on “A Portrait of Artist Dana Schutz’s Son Reframes Issues of Consent and Appropriation”

  1. Dear Kealey Boyd,

    A number of points:

    1. Shutz’s painting does not tell the viewer how to respond. Neither does Farah’s. If I don’t know the story behind Emmitt Till, I will read the painting in one way, but if I do, I will respond in another way. And I do. I followed the story as it unfolded at the time, and remember well the photograph his mother released. Not knowing anything about Farah’s painting, the photo that headlined this morning’s Hyperallergic email, meant little, except that it was the image of a small boy’s face — i.e., no ‘political’ overtones.

    2. I am not an attorney, but it’s my understanding that images that are in some way ‘public’ don’t need ‘permissions’ to be used. Right now, for instance, there is a debate going on in England concerning upskirting, and whether or not it should be legal.

    3. If one does not want the image of their child used (or abused), they should not make it easily available. I know a woman who only posts 1/4 side views of her children on line.

    4. Unless one is really railing hard against a given issue, and thus prone to use inflated language, I find it out of place to use such currently loaded words as “predatory” and “appropriated”. In reading this article, I had the feeling that you were raising an important question, rather than expressing an opinion (although that wasn’t entirely clear). I think the question is worth asking.

    Thank you,
    mai rafner

    1. Apparently not that easily available since the Hyperallergic author could not find a source.

  2. It seems to me that the issue with Dana Schutz’s use of the Emmet Till image was not that such a painting was made, but that it was made as a part of a significant artistic career — significant enough so that it was placed on view in a high-powered bourgeois institution. Thus, a particularly Black injury, the lynching of Emmet Till, was subordinated to the careerism of various people, most or all of them White (and probably upper-class) and remote from the teeth of the social dynamic that murdered Till. Painting a picture of Schutz’s infant son, rather than critiquing and explaining the original problem, seems to me to simply compound it, adding another layer of obfuscated exploitation. As if the only issue here were the violation of some sort of tribal boundary, and issues of class and power were irrelevant.

  3. Aside from the politics and ethics (which are very real and important) no one mentions the simple fact that both Schutz and Farah are really terrible painters whose work is more fitting in pretentious, bourgeois picture framing shops than in museums or galleries.

    1. I have not seen anything of Farah’s live, up close, and personal, so I have no way to respond, but Schutz, by any stretch of the imagination, is not a “terrible” painter. Style aside, on a scale of zero-to-Rembrandt she certainly qualifies right in there with Bonnard. Her vision is fresh. Engaging. Furthermore, given her very personal style, and the scale at which she paints, I can’t imagine her work in any “pretentious, bourgeois picture framing shop”.

      1. Clearly, you haven’t seen a Bonnard if you believe her work is comparable. Her work is mediocre graduate school level. And her “style” is a regurgitation of every rule-bound psuedo-abrstactionist and utterly safe art school compositional study I have ever seen. It is the opposite of personal. It is shot through with one anachronistic cliche after another. It is little more than clever “artsy” illustration, a slightly more sophisticated version of LeRoy Neiman.

        1. Don’t be foolish. If I were willing to comment on work I haven’t seen up-close-and-personal, I would have been more than willing to comment on Farah’s work. My experience of Bonnard is entirely different, and you should have realized that I was speaking of things ‘painterly’. Obviously, in response to your notion that Shutz is a “terrible” painter.

          1. Seems like you are very happy about mediocrity. Good for you. I prefer real painting, as opposed to illustrative pastiche pretending to be groundbreaking, and worn out regurgitations of soft-pedalled yet somehow stunted and controlling German expressionism posing as something personal. Her very construction itself is pure academedia. Plasticity is a foreign concept to her: I doubt she even knows what it is. Painterly? Hardly. That designation has to do with far more than letting the brushstrokes show. It has to do with letting the paint itself express and create the content, rather than force content into a surface style, and a purely derivative one at that. Bonnard is an outright radical compared to her. But by all means, enjoy what you enjoy.

          2. No thanks. If only you knew . . .
            Your verbal claptrap no longer interests me. A shallow mind.
            Have a good day.

          3. As I said, enjoy what you enjoy. That you clearly don’t understand the difference between painting and derivative illustration is your problem, not mine. But if your lack of discernment and knowledge allows you to like her work, more power to you.

          4. Daniel,
            I don’t know who you are. Perhaps you are well-schooled and highly qualified, but, from what I read here, you are not using either to their best advantage.

            If you do not understand the word ‘painterly’, that is *not* my problem. Your apparent lack of understanding leads you to repeat your dislike of their work using phrases such as “pretentious, bourgeois”, “rule-bound psuedo-abstractionist”, and “academedia”, having nothing to do with your contention “that both Schutz and Farah are really terrible painters”. If by “painters” you mean ‘artists’, then I have no beef with your opinions. I’m sorry, but as a painter, Shutz does not qualify as “terrible”.

            Can we now stop this nonsense? (But first, please have the last word.)

          5. If you don’t understand how a painting’s being academic, rule-bound and pseudo anything has to do directly with it’s being unoriginal, pretentious and hackneyed means you don’t get painting at all. If you don’t understand the difference between illustration – stylized, brushy or not – and painting, you understand neither. As for understanding what the word “painterly” means, I am using the word as painters do: not as a description of style devoid of content, meaning, and expression but of how the paint – the color, the materiality, the edges, the surface, etc – actually functions in a painting, what it does syntactically. When brush stokes act as merely style, divorced from content, as they do in both Schutz’s and Farah’s work, it is a pure demonstration of bad painting. The facture and the content have no relationship. The content is not expressed BY the work but only by the illustrative associations outside of the work, gussied up in arbitrary, decorative art school (academic) methods. (It’s as if she’s singing a cheerful, pretty little song, a nice little ditty, in proper meter and three part harmony about unspeakable horror.) When one looks at a Titian or a Bonnard or a Pollock or a DeKooning, one can’t imagine those works being painted differently, because HOW they are painted is utterly inseparable from WHAT they express. The same can’t be said about Schutz or Farah. All they require is recognition of the subject matter: “This is Emmet Till in his coffin” (but brushy and with nice pretty colors – oh, those lovely greens and yellows! – and acceptably balanced, utterly formulaic composition) or “This is Schutz’s son” (but brushy). And that makes both of their work terrible as paintings, never rising above the level of illustration. You’re welcome.

  4. Plainly put: the full emotional and historical context of Emmet Till’s murder, and the pain that his mother suffered as a consequence, is a context and a pain that, frankly, no white person can ever fully comprehend. To claim otherwise is to be remarkably naive, or worse.

    1. We’re going to put everyone’s pain in the balance and weigh it, aggregate the results, and then rate ‘races’ based on whose aggregation we deem greater? Seems like a dubious procedure. And then what?

      1. No need to weigh or measure it in anyway: I’m in no way implying that this is a contest. My point is that it benefits all of us when we are able to recognize when someone’s experience is beyond our own scope. We have all been–and will def. find ourselves– on both sides of such scenarios.

        1. I would think anyone whose child was brutally murdered and the murderer was never brought to justice would understand the pain. It is racist of you to suggest that pain has a race. It does not. Pain is equal opportunity.

          1. It is racist of me to claim that a highly specific pain must be the result of a racially motivated as well as racially defended/justified murder? I would argue that the very opposite is the case: to attempt to take race out of the context of Emmet Till’s murder is to utterly diminish the effects of racism.

            And–since this point clearly is overlooked again and again in my statement above: anyone who has intimate knowledge of pain will explain that it has nuance. While most people hopefully can feel empathy for someone in pain, this is not the same as being able to relate and/or completely understand. Why this should be so difficult to accept is a little bit of a mystery to me.

          2. At no point am I making that statement, but if it makes you feel morally superior to claim that I have by all means go ahead. The loss of depth and nuance is solely yours to live with.

    2. No white person with zero empathy you mean. To categorically state that nobody other than a black person can understand and empathise with another’s pain is simplistic and reductionist.

    3. Yes, and Schutz said that.

      What does your comment have to do with the paintings or the article?

        1. Okay, but I’m one of those commenters, and all of us were commenting on the article and/or the painting, so I’d ask how your comment applies to what we wrote.

          1. As I (at least attempt to) make clear in my comment, I don’t think that a white woman, or man, can ever fully empathize with the pain and horror of the mother of Emmet Till.

          2. One could reasonably say that no one can ever fully empathize (or sympathize) with any other person, since humans do not seem to possess group mind, regardless of what race they are assigned to. It seems to me that what offended people about Schutz’s painting was the use of its subject in a gallery to advance a career, not a failed requirement on the part of the artist to read minds.

          3. Did you intend to be willfully stupid? The assumption by you and others, that I somehow am suggesting we quantify pain, is saying more about you than anything else. As humans, all of us are (or at least will be at some point) familiar with pain of many different kinds, but to assume that, say, loosing an elderly parent to cancer is the same painful experience as loosing a child to torture and murder is to sorely lack in the empathy department.
            As I have stated above, I’m in no way implying that this is a contest. Am I coming through this time?

          4. A “very, very broad brush” may be correct–but don’t disregard the fact that it’s done with the deliberate intention of allowing for innumerable, and possibly so-far unrecognized, nuances.

    4. Wary as I normally am of absolutist statements, I have to concede that you’re probably correct in this particular case. Regardless of any instances of black-on-white violence, past or present, black people have never enjoyed the comparable “privilege” of killing/terrorizing/enslaving whites with near impunity.

      1. Thank you, Jimmy. I’m no big fan of absolutist declarations myself, but I feel that this is an important point that so easily is misunderstood or completely overlooked. In my experience, active listening (as opposed to comparing and/or the attempt to mirror an un-relatable event) is often the most powerful–as well as respectful–way to express empathy.

  5. If it was intended as a response to Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till I just don’t understand the point the ‘artist’ is making. Are we supposed to equate Till’s mutilated face ‘appropriation’ by Schutz as equal to Farah’s portrait of her son? Are we supposed to feel outraged as we finally ‘understand’ the reality of stealing someones image?
    If it wasn’t such a crap painting (oh sorry, banal is the way to describe it politely) there might be something to discuss. But a bad copy of a photo from an amateur springs to mind.

  6. “If Schutz’s goal was to express pain and empathy and give life to a
    conversation she perceived as relevant to a new context, Farah has aided
    her objective.”

    Exactly. This is an important point that should not be missed.

  7. I suppose if it were really tit-for-tat, Farah would have depicted Schutz’s son as a victim or soon-to-be victim of horrific violence.

    …in other news, we are fucked as a species.

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