On Emmett Till, Black Death Spectacle, And Cultural (Mis)Appropriation

Stop parachuting into discussions about racism for personal gain.

A good friend and artist/UXer recently called attention to the current uproar over Dana Schutz’s interpretation of the infamous Emmett Till murder and open casket, asking friends to respond since she hadn’t heard much else about it yet and was hoping to hear some perspectives. As I started to draft a response I realized I had a lot to say about this, so I am posting it here.

An original photo is here, but be forewarned: it is graphic and disturbing.

This is difficult/complicated, but the net of it is, perhaps, that we are now having a conversation about it, so there’s that…

I spent a little time learning about the artist at the center of the controversy, or learning whatever could be learned about a person from reading interviews and Wikipedia entries, and here’s what I found:

  • The artist is used to being able to fluently express awkwardness and disgust for typically white, typically fictional subjects. “Again and again Ms. Schutz has challenged herself to come up with a subject that’s too awkward, gross, impractical or invisible to paint. But she has yet to find one that stumps her.” (Rosenberg, 2015)
  • I struggled to find a single other example of a black or brown body in her work, though perhaps I didn’t spend that long looking, because
  • Her style strikes me as ‘trying too hard to be provocative’ so I wasn’t all that interested. I am not trained or experienced as an art critic, so feel free to take such a critique with the proverbial grain.
  • I found no evidence of the artist having engaged in any equity or justice work around any cause whatsoever, let alone around racial violence or injustice, both of which have flourished (cf. “Just Mercy,” and/or “The New Jim Crow”) in the years coinciding with her rise to artistic renown.

She reveals in a follow up interview on artnet that fresh white panic over the American nightmare that is characteristic of the ‘new normal’: “a state of emergency — there were constant mass shootings, racist rallies filled with hate speech, and an escalating number of camera-phone videos of innocent black men being shot by police.” The specific events referenced are somewhat ambiguous: is she referring to the mass shooting of blacks in their local church? Black Lives Matter rallies or Trump rallies? I’ll assume that she means Trump rallies, so why not just say so? Why focus on the ‘cell-phone videos’ (as if it is the videos and not the murders that are so shocking) and not on the abuse of authority and the growing illegitimacy of the monopoly on violence in the U.S.

I’m not saying these are airtight arguments for or against any position, but just they’re confusing questions left open to interpretation by an ambiguous style of speech. This style is so often the hallmark of white women engaging in the American racial discourse for the first time.

What seems more clear to me is the profound sense of shock (“state of emergency!”) that I can only guess arises out of a middle American upbringing; a pallid, sheltered, liberal, colorblind understanding of history, and the nurturing of an artistic voice in a world-class art school in the midwest, a residency in the woods of Maine, and the privileged halls of the Ivy League. (That is certainly not an indictment of everyone who attends Columbia, but anyone who has attended can testify to the myriad ways such and institution nurtures and shelters privilege.)

When Emmett Till’s mother chose to have an open casket for her lynched son’s funeral, she was a black woman powerfully asserting her agency and preemptively challenging white denial of racial violence — and at a time when such assertions practically guaranteed further violence. When the artist here paints her grotesque and awkward rendition of a subject that is perhaps semi-fictional (legendary) to her, she does so as a panicked (state of emergency!) expression of her white guilt/disgust, prompted primarily by cable news consumption and a desire to prove her empathy bona fides as a mother (because being a mother deflects from the uncomfortable issue of race. We are all human and have mothers, we should focus on our solidarity as mothers or as humans instead of on our difference.)

The essence of this story, though, and that which aptly illustrates cultural (mis)appropriation, is that nowhere in the artist’s work or biography is there evidence of any authentic antiracist thinking or action. The artist is not fluent in critical race thinking, and has not spent time advocating in that powerful way that is reserved for artists. There is nothing in her work to suggest concern for the myriad issues that affect communities of the global majority. This is the essence of (mis)appropriation: cherry-picking cultural matters for your own purposes, without bothering to engage with the real experiences and issues of people who have to live as part of those cultures full-time. It’s White tourism, and an extension of colonial logic, the ‘experiencing of cultures’ without any burden of caring about anyone else’s experiences. With no apparent warning, or preface, or credibility, suddenly the artist bursts forth with a “shame on you white people for this grotesque and deplorable past and present,” which being entirely true is destined to be entirely ineffective and also, for many, just offensive.

Don’t bother gracing a museum with your sudden concern for black suffering..."

If you want to do something about Trump, go home and ruin Thanksgiving by forcing your relatives to talk about Emmett Till, and the countless dead bodies violated long before cell phone cameras and the internet forced us to acknowledge them. Tell your suburban Michigander relatives that they need to wake up from their long comfortable slumber of privileged ambivalent complacency, lest their country tear itself (and them) apart as so many empires have before.

Don’t bother gracing a museum with your sudden concern for black suffering (with nothing but ambiguous and silent implication acknowledging white violence and inhumanity). The raison d’être seems to be exploiting controversy for publicity and profit, nestled in a sufficiently “safe” and gentrified neighborhood in the warm pretend-progressive bosom of the City.

This article was originally published on my blog, where you can go to read more from this series and for other things I write when I have a chance. Keep on reading!