Social Justice Activists Want Artist Banned Out Of Spite

Painter Dana Schutz. image courtesy of Tom Powel Imaging.

Ian Miles Cheong Contributor
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Dana Schutz, the artist who was the subject of controversy for her depiction of lynching victim Emmett Till, is once again at the center of a social justice firestorm as protesters are calling for her latest exhibit to be banned.

Only this time, it’s out of spite.

The artist, who is white, stirred angry convulsions from the social justice mob who were offended by her painting of Emmett Till when it was previously presented at the Whitney Biennial exhibit. Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket,” was inspired by old photographs of the dead 14-year-old who was lynched by white supremacists for allegedly whistling at a white girl.

Activists called for the destruction of the painting, claiming that Schutz was appropriating black suffering. They cited her work as yet another example of systemic racial oppression.

“White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go,” wrote British-born activist Hannah Black, who demanded that the painting not only be removed but destroyed.

Hungry for blood, protesters are now demanding that the Institution of Contemporary Art in Boston ban her latest exhibition, despite the fact that she isn’t presenting the Till painting. In an open letter directed to the museum, activists and artists are demanding the show be pulled. They claim that their demands are “not about censorship” but about “institutional accountability”—a fancy term they’re using to justify deplatforming the artist.

In a call reminiscent of religious iconoclasts’ calls for the destruction of offensive art, the group argues that museum directors and curators should be responsible for representing artists they host.

We must challenge directors and curators of cultural institutions to face the moral gravitas of reckless cultural insensibilities of artists in their charge and not waver due to the weight of their bottomlines.

The activists claim that the exhibition, which does not feature the painting of Till, directly benefits the painter due to her preexisting notoriety and affords her access to future opportunities. The ICA does not even mention “Open Casket” in their press release for her.

With no apparent grasp of irony, one of the letter’s signees calling for Schutz’s ban, Stephanie Houten, wrote an op-ed for MASSCreative calling for the protection of the arts in defense of social justice.

Museum director Jill Medvedow refuses to capitulate to their demands and stated that the show will simply continue as planned.

“This past March when her painting Open Casket was shown at the Whitney Biennial, there were a range of responses, including many who felt that the painting embodied privilege and had caused them pain,” Medvedow said in a statement published on ICA’s website. “Art often exposes the fault lines in our culture, and Open Casket raised difficult questions about cultural appropriation, race, and representation.”

“Though Open Casket is not in the ICA exhibition, we welcome the opportunity for debate and reflection on the issues of representation and responsibility, sympathy and empathy, art and social justice,” she added. “Complex, challenging, sensitive, and urgent, these are issues deserving of thoughtful discourse, and museums are one of the few places where the artist’s voice is central to the conversation.”

Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken media critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.