A painting of murdered black boy Emmett Till’s beaten body on show at New York’s Whitney Biennial has become the latest object of fatuous, philistine claims of cultural appropriation and so-called systemic racism.
In 1955, 14-year-old Till was beaten and murdered in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white woman. The attackers were acquitted by an all-white jury. Till’s mother famously insisted on an open casket so the world could see the full horror of the crime.
‘Open Casket’ by Dana Schutz recreates the original, iconic photo of Emmett Till’s disfigured face, as an impressionist, modern and powerful reminder of a decisive moment in the movement towards civil rights in America. Whitney claim the painting was made as a response to worries about police brutality against black people today.
However, a number of protestors have taken it upon themselves to brand the art work as racist and illegitimate, claiming that Schutz has no right to objectify black victims, as a white artist.
Rather than see the painting as a sign of solidarity, these silly, imbecilic activists are determined to make Schutz the enemy.
Artist Hannah Black has written an open letter to Whitney calling for the painting to be destroyed. She writes:
‘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.’
It appears we are suffering here from the ‘sacredness of the protestor’ syndrome. From Islamist victimhood to Black Lives Matter’s self-entitled immaturity, all someone needs to do now to be taken seriously or to make a university board cow to their every need, is to pull off the pose of the protestor.
We have been so programmed with the Apple Mac repackaging of the sixties, that the image of a marching, placard-carrying youth is now the shorthand for progressive ideas, and any attempt to criticise it is automatically reactionary.
Protesting has now become a lifestyle choice, a badge of honour for the instagram age. People seem more concerned with being seen to be on the right side of public opinion, than they do on being on the right side of history.
We really have to take a look at the issue of white guilt. Doing so does not mean we are re-writing the past, or turning a blind eye to colonialism. If we now live in a public space in which any reference to whiteness and privilege clears the ground for arbitrary moral claims to be given extra weight than they really deserve, then surely there is something wrong with the idea.
It is now impossible to weigh the claims of Black Lives Matter protests or outcries over ‘Islamophobia’, on their own merits. All someone needs to do to rise above scrutiny is shout accusations about systemic oppression or marginalisation, and all of a sudden they elevate themselves to some ethereal moral space that rules out further discussion.
If you pursue the fundamental moral worry, you hear all sorts of apologism about such and such a person’s experience, the marginalisation of their historic perspective and so on… on and on and on. All of this is supposed to give such claims a special dispensation against scrutiny and challenge.
If you are black, muslim or gay, for instance, you are now immune from such ‘white supremacist’ concerns about free speech, logical consistency or public order.
And this doesn’t even touch on the concern about artistic freedom. History tells us that when a movement begins to prescribe which art is morally acceptable and which is not, then that movement has turned from revolutionary to reactionary, it has assumed the role of executive power, and often does so without any deference to public warrant.
Not only that, the protestors in this case are not content with the removal of the pice of art in question, nor the closing of the exhibition – both of which would be an outrage in their own right. What is being piously demanded is the destruction of the piece of art in question.
How close are we now to book burning? How much further do we need to go from destroying works of art that we don’t like, to exterminating people we deem to be collectively guilty?
These protestors have ever right to protest and express their anger. But that same right gives the rest of us the freedom to not give a monkey’s behind about their feelings, and ignore them.
Crying wolf about racism and oppression is a double insult. Firstly, such claims are false and amount to a slander on what is undeniably one of the freest and most expressive cultures in history.
Secondly, they are a mockery to the countless feminists, journalists and political dissidents currently languishing in rat-infested cells around the world for simply disagreeing with their governments, or being of the wrong skin colour or racial group.
Appeals to invisible racism, or sub-conscious oppression, or hidden biases, amount to nothing more than a tenuous attempt by spoilt, bratty bourgeoisie kids to give their life some kind of elevated meaning. All you need to do to make yourself feel like a revolutionary is to invent through circuitous sophistry some reason for explaining away your liberties as examples of fascistic oppression.
Ultimately, if we are to accept the claims that only black people are allowed to discuss or creatively reflect on the crimes of white racists, what will happen to the numberless songs or works of art that formed the backbone of the civil rights movement? If we destroy this piece of art, what other mementoes of struggle do we have to wipe from our history? And who gets to decide which works stay and which have to go?
Some may respond to what is being said here with a claim that though the reaction of the protestors is extreme, their concerns are legitimate, that Dana Schutz’s art is an example of cultural appropriation, so we as white people should ‘check our privilege’ nonetheless.
Well, this too has hidden repercussions. Beneath this seemingly moderate claim is the admission that artistic value depends on political correctitude. And what is deemed correct still needs to be referred to some mythic council of tastemakers.
Fundamentally, the protests against Dana Schutz’s work are an insult to everyone who would otherwise get to make up their own mind about the painting. The very idea of cultural appropriation itself is an insult to the notions of artistic experiment and cultural exploration.
The people protesting this painting are using the right to protest to give their ideology credibility it does not deserve. They will no doubt claim to stand in history alongside Martin Luther King Jnr as dissenters against ignorance and racism. However, this claim has no more weight than the claims of warmongers to stand alongside Winston Churchill as one of history’s just warriors.
We must not be cowed by accusations of racism, or feelings of white guilt. A free society depends on its citizens feeling empowered to protest the protestor, to dissent against the dissenters. This right is the foundation of creative freedom, and the only thing that stands between civilisation and rapacious philistinism.