In 1989, John Ahearn, a white artist living in the South Bronx, cast a group of local black and Latino people for a series of bronze sculptures commissioned by the city for an intersection outside a police station. As his models, he chose a drug addict, a hustler and a street kid. Ahearn thought that he was paying them homage, restoring the humanity of people who were often vilified in American society. His models found the work flattering, but some members of the community felt that he ought to have depicted more 'positive' representatives, while others were insulted that a white artist had been given such a commission in the first place, since only a genuine local – a black or Latino artist – had the right to represent the community. Ahearn eventually removed the sculptures. 'The issues were too hot for dialogue,' he reflected later. 'The critics said that people in the community have a right to positive images that their children can look up to. I agree that the installation did not serve that purpose.'
Jane Kramer wrote about Ahearn in the New Yorker, and later expanded her piece into a short book, Whose Art Is It? I was reminded of Kramer's book, and the questions it raises about the frictions between artistic freedom and cultural ownership, by the controversy surrounding the work of another white artist, Dana Schutz's Open Casket, a painting based on the iconic photographs of Emmett Till in his coffin. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman; his killers were acquitted. His mother insisted on the photographs of his body being published as evidence of the horror inflicted on her son. Schutz's painting, on display at the Whitney Biennial, has raised accusations of racially insensitive exploitation, and prompted a silent protest at the museum, as well as a petition that the work be removed and even destroyed.
Schutz's critics accuse her, first, of aestheticising atrocity in an offensive and insensitive way. 'Where the photographs stood for a plain and universal photographic truth,' Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye argue in the New Republic, 'Schutz has blurred the reality of Till’s death, infusing it with subjectivity.' But 'aestheticise' is precisely what painters can't help but do when they paint from photographs; think of Gerhard Richter's paintings of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists who died in police custody, or of Picasso's Guernica. It may be impossible for a painting of an atrocity not to 'aestheticise' horror. The charge could be levelled at a painting of another racist atrocity at the Whitney Biennial, Henry Taylor's depiction of the death of Philando Castile, who was killed in his car by a Minnesota police officer last July. But Taylor, unlike Schutz, is black.
This is where the second claim comes in: that white artists, whatever their intentions (or whatever they imagine to be their intentions), are engaging in illegitimate cultural appropriation when they depict black suffering. (Richter and Picasso, on this view, were exercising their right to paint their own people.) Hannah Black, a British-born black artist who lives in Berlin, wrote an open letter to the Whitney that has attracted signatures from a number of young artists of colour:
Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist – those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.
On this view, Schutz's work is objectively complicit with racism, even in its protest against racism, because the mere fact of a white artist representing a mutilated black body, and using it as 'raw material', is predicated on white supremacy.
This is not the sort of debate that the biennial’s curators, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, were hoping to spark. Few artists have come to Schutz's defence, even if they privately disagree with the protest. (Kara Walker, whose provocative imaginings of plantation life initially provoked an uproar among some older black artists, published an eloquent statement in support of Schutz.) When white standards of beauty and aesthetics have been the norm for centuries – and against the backdrop of police killings of young black men – the traditional free speech principle that an artist has the right to choose her material can hardly compete with the critique of the use of the black body as white material. Seldom has the charge of cultural appropriation stung so sharply in liberal circles. White fascination with black culture turns to gruesome intellectual property theft in Jordan Peele's brilliant new horror film, Get Out, whose villains kidnap black people to steal their brains. 'I want your eyes, man,' one of the perpetrators, a seeming liberal, says to a young black man. 'I want those things you see through.'
Schutz makes no claim to see Till through black eyes. In her response to the protest letter, she said plainly that she has no way of understanding 'what it is like to be black in America', which can be read either as a disarming expression of humility, or (less charitably) as a failure of imagination. But she has otherwise deferred to the terms of the debate set by the protesters, who argue that experience, if not identity itself, confers the right of representation. As a mother, Schutz says, she can imagine the pain of Mamie Till Mobley, who lost her 14-year-old son, and is therefore qualified to use this image to create a 'space for empathy'. The effect of her comment was to assert a right to represent rooted in personal experience, and to further particularise suffering. But black history – as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin, among others, always stressed – is American history; confronting it a common burden.
The photographs of Emmett Till are to the memory of lynching what pictures of Anne Frank are to the memory of the Holocaust. It is, in other words, almost sacred, and any attempt to represent it was bound to strike some people as blasphemous. The argument that his image should not be aestheticised is similar to the argument that the Holocaust should not be visually depicted. Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah (1985) included not a single newsreel image. Lanzmann's argument no longer enjoys the authority it once did. Shoah was followed by Spielberg's Schindler's List, and later by Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which retold the Occupation of France as a spaghetti Western. But the sensitivities around the representation of racist atrocities – and, more broadly, black bodies – run much higher than those around the Holocaust, precisely because they have not come to an end. Emmett Till in his coffin evokes contemporary police violence and mass incarceration, the New Jim Crow, as much as it does the era of Jim Crow.
This does not, however, resolve the question that Jane Kramer posed in her book about John Ahearn: whose art is it, and who gets to make it? A prominent black curator told me years ago about a tour she had given to a group of people visiting a show of work about race in America. A black woman in the group pointed to a painting she considered degrading to black people, and compared it to one that, in her view, expressed an ennobling vision of black humanity. The first painting was by Robert Colescott, a black artist who has drawn mischievously on African-American stereotypes in his work; the second was by the white, Jewish artist Leon Golub, a left-wing figurative painter. It could be argued that one painter was exercising his cultural rights, the other mining the black body for raw material. But for at least one black viewer, the question of whether belonging confers legitimacy was not so easily settled.
What is most troubling about the call to remove Schutz's painting is not the censoriousness, but the implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines. Edward Said, writing of the erasure of Palestinian history, regretted that Palestinians were denied 'permission to narrate', and insisted that Palestinians had to tell their own story, and foist it on the world's consciousness. But he always welcomed the efforts of anti-Zionist Jewish and Israeli writers to contribute to this story, because he knew it was an indivisible Arab-Jewish one. Truth for Said was 'contrapuntal', not a monologue. Perhaps, in the juxtaposition of Dana Schutz's Open Casket and Henry Taylor's painting of Philando Castile, the Whitney Biennial is making a small contribution to the telling of America's contrapuntal racial history.