On view at the Whitney

Terms like ‘white privilege’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ are easily thrown around, but they’re not without their merits

'Open Casket' by Dana Schutz (photo credit: BILL ORCUTT)
'Open Casket' by Dana Schutz
(photo credit: BILL ORCUTT)
White privilege. It’s a subject that arises even in the most surprising of places, such as a Facebook forum where many hundreds of people who grew up in my small but racially and ethnically diverse American town exchange daily memories of a pretty happy childhood.
The idyll was broken a couple of weeks ago when a member brought it up and another weighed in on his belief that it had cost him promotions at work. But no floodgates were immediately opened, and the member who felt he had been wronged remarked: “It’s funny that of all the people on this page, only six choose to comment; even the topic creates fear.”
And how. White privilege and the discomfort inherent in discussing it exist no matter where one lives – although the cohort with the most power doesn’t necessarily have to be “white.” Living in Israel, I get it. I really do.
THERE’S ANOTHER term making the rounds: cultural appropriation. The culprits are generally the same people who are guilty of white privilege (or whatever the local iteration is called).
The phenomenon first came to my attention in November 2015 when the Student Union at the University of Ottawa suddenly canceled a yoga class that had been taking place there for seven years.
“Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced and what practices from what cultures (which are often sacred spiritual practices) they are being taken from,” a Student Union employee emailed the dumbfounded instructor. “Many of these cultures are cultures that have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy, and we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga.”
The instructor politely offered to change the name of the class to “Stretching,” but the Student Union refused to bend. It never explained whether it was the practice of yoga outside India or the fact that the instructor was white, or maybe something in between, only that there had been some “complaints.” It was one of the most bizarrely asinine things I had ever heard.
A more recent accusation of cultural appropriation, though, is eliciting few snickers.
A painting called Open Casket is part of an exhibit at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art. It depicts Emmett Till at his funeral. For those unfamiliar with the name, the black, 14-year-old Chicago resident had gone to visit relatives in Mississippi in 1955 and was beaten, mutilated beyond recognition and shot, and thrown into a river for good measure.
His mother, Mamie, chose a glasstopped casket because she “wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”
A black and white photo made its way to the press, and Till’s horrific murder, together with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that began three months later, are generally referred to as the watershed events that galvanized the US civil rights struggle.
The anger over Open Casket stems from the circumstances surrounding the murder: Till allegedly had flirted with a white woman. The woman told her husband, who, together with his half-brother, abducted and killed the youth. The men were tried by a white jury and acquitted, although they later admitted their guilt. In 2008, the woman admitted she had made up the story.
It had been a white-on-black crime.
Now, according to some, Dana Schutz, the white artist, was committing the same type of crime, basically through cultural appropriation – with thanks, of course, to white privilege.
British artist Hannah Black said that the highly stylized, full-color painting had no place at the Whitney and should even be destroyed. On March 17, opening day, someone stood before it, trying to block it from view.
On March 22, the New Republic published “The Case against Dana Schutz: Why her painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial insults his memory,” an essay by Josephine Livingstone, the publication’s culture writer, and Lovia Gyarkye, a reporter-researcher there.
“Emmett Till,” they wrote, “died because a white woman lied about their brief interaction. He died because his side of the story did not mean anything to the two white men who killed him, just as it meant nothing to the jury that acquitted them. For a white woman to paint Emmett Till’s mutilated face communicates not only a tone-deafness toward the history of his murder, but an ignorance of the history of white women’s speech in that murder – the way it canceled out Till’s own expression, with lethal effect.”
My first reaction was one of incredulity.
After all, Schutz had responded by saying: “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.”
Certainly, this wasn’t a matter of defining art – it was who “owns” the subject matter and whether someone far removed can ever really understand it, much less interpret it. In other words, is it enough to be a mother to comprehend Mamie’s anguish over her son’s death or must one be a mother of color? FORTY-ODD YEARS ago, long before Schindler’s List and back when Holocaust studies were still emerging as a legitimate field, there was an uproar in the United States over a television miniseries called Holocaust. Many Jews noted that the primary purpose of a miniseries, even if it enlightened viewers, was to entertain them. Worse, it would turn unimaginable horror into the relatively sanitized pap that was typical of the pre-cable era. But many other Jews were angry simply because no one had bothered to even ask.
We Jews own the Holocaust. We weren’t the only victims, but we were the primary victims and the ones singled out for mass extermination – and we don’t like it when others appropriate it without our permission.
So go define art. But now I get it: Pay attention to who owns the subject matter – especially if you’re going to be interpreting it in your own stylized way.
I’m no expert, but I’ll say that while art should stimulate discussion, it should never go so far as to polarize people. And God knows, we’re polarized as it is.