Are There Subjects That Should Be Off-Limits to Artists, or to Certain Artists in Particular?

April 4, 2017
The New York Times

by Caroline Crosson Gilpin

Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” part of the Whitney Biennial. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times.

Compare the painting pictured above, “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz, with the one below, “The Times Thay Ain’t a Changing Fast Enough!” by Henry Taylor.

Describe what you see. How is the subject matter depicted — is it realistic, surreal, abstract? Which of these paintings do you find more graphic? Why?

Can you think of any artwork that has been banned, including books, paintings, music, movies or television? What was banned, and why?

Henry Taylor’s “The Times Thay Aint a Changing Fast Enough!,” part of the Whitney Biennial. Credit Philip Greenberg for The New York Times.

In “Should Art That Infuriates Be Removed?”, Roberta Smith writes:

We all encounter art we don’t like, that upsets and infuriates us. This doesn’t deserve to be exhibited, our brains yell; it should not be allowed to exist. Still, does such aversion mean that an artwork must be removed from view — or, worse, destroyed?

This question has been at the heart of the controversy that has split the art world since the Whitney Biennial opened nearly two weeks ago. The turmoil, which has been excruciating for many people in different ways, centers on “Open Casket,” a painting in the exhibition by Dana Schutz. The work is based partly on photographs of the horrifically mutilated face of Emmett Till lying in his coffin in 1955, about 10 days after that African-American 14-year-old was brutally killed by two white men in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white store clerk. The artist, Ms. Schutz, is white, and her use of the images has struck many in the art world as an inappropriate appropriation that, they argue, should be removed.

The first protest was solo: The day the exhibition opened an African-American artist, Parker Bright, stood in front of it wearing a T-shirt with “Black Death Spectacle” handwritten on its back, sometimes partly blocking the view, sometimes engaging others in conversation. A photograph of Mr. Bright at the Whitney was posted on Twitter:

Objections to the painting went viral with an open letter from Hannah Black, a British-born writer and artist who lives in Berlin, co-signed by others, charging that the Till image was “black subject matter,” off limits to a white artist. Ms. Black belittled the Schutz painting as exploiting black suffering “for profit and fun” and demanded that it be not only removed from the exhibition but also destroyed.

Students: Read the entire article, then tell us:

— Are there any topics or subjects that should be out of bounds for an artist? Why or why not?

— Does an artist’s race, ethnicity, religion or gender matter when she or he creates art about a subject about a different identity group? Consider examples from the article and others not mentioned.

— Ms. Smith writes in the article, “But perhaps the most important, the paintings by Mr. Taylor and Ms. Schultz share an all-too-American subject, that of hateful, corrosive white racism. Who owns that?” What do you think?

— In light of the quote above, consider the history of Jim Crow, segregation in northern cities, and the Civil Rights Movement and its successes, shortcomings and role in American history. How should Americans reckon with and understand this history? Does any group “own” this history? Which group, or neither, and why?

The warm-up activity and the questions above came from Brian Hussey, an AP U.S. history and American studies facilitator at New Tech High @ Coppell, in Coppell, Texas. Mr. Hussey wrote to us at The Learning Network to say he has used the site frequently, in both his current school and previously, at a charter school in North Philadelphia. His students recently used this New York Times article to discuss ownership of history in their six-week Civil Rights Movement unit.