Cultural Appropriation at the Biennial

Cultural appropriation has been particularly on my mind this week in light of the inappropriate inclusion of a painting by Dana Schutz in the Whitney Biennial. The painting, Open Casket, depicts the corpse of Emmett Till. The selection of this subject matter by a white artist signals a disregard for the legacy of violence that has historically been (and continues to be) directed against Black people in the United States and abroad. It demonstrates a lack of judgment and sensitivity on the part of the artist. As Hrag Vartanian wrote in Hyperallergic, “The image is particularly troubling because a white woman’s fictions caused the murder of the young man, and now a white female artist has mined a photograph of his death for ostensible commentary, which in reality does little to illuminate much of anything.” The ensuing request for the removal of the painting, written by artist Hannah Black, and the protests in response to this offensive painting are apt.

While Schutz created the painting, curators selected it for display. I think the selection of this painting was a misstep on the part of the two curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, who otherwise seem to put together an overall remarkable, politically engaged exhibition. Curators have a responsibility to select and position artwork in such a way that it stimulates thought and emotion; I would also argue that they are obligated to be empathetic, too.

Works Cited

“Artists and Critics Demand Whitney Biennial Remove Painting in Open Letter.” Artforum, 21 March 2017, Accessed 21 March 2017.

Vartanian, Hrag. “The Violence of the 2017 Whitney Biennial.” Hyperallergic, 21 March 2017,  Accessed 21 March 2017.

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