“Open Casket” by artist Dana Schutz, is a painting being showcased at the 2017 Whitney Biennial located at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, NY. Peaceful protesters have been taking turns standing directly in front of the painting to obscure its view as they believe it is exploitative and disrespectful to black Americans.


(Two Coats of Paint)

In fact, they have requested the piece of art be removed entirely, and are outraged that the artist would benefit from the piece when it portrays a young man who suffered such brutality because of racism. Emmett Till was only 14-years-old when he visited family members in Money, Miss. back in August of 1955.


He was accused of whistling at a white woman, the store owner’s wife, (who admitted she lied more than 60 years later). Four days after the incident at the store in Money, Till was kidnapped, tortured, savagely beaten beyond recognition, and killed. His body was thrown in the river, but was later discovered and reported to authorities. The two men accused, the store owner, and his half brother, were acquitted at their trial. They later admitted to killing Till, but never served time for their crime. Justice was never served.


The painting portrays the mutilated face of the teen and is called “Open Casket” because Till’s mother, Mamie Till, ordered the casket to be left open at the funeral services. The Till family lived in Chicago, so her son’s body had to be transported to her from Money, Miss. Officials in Miss. sealed the coffin the boy’s body was in and it is likely they did not want it known that such travesty took place in their state.


However, Mamie Till insisted. She pried open the casket when it arrived, and examined her son’s body who could only be identified by a ring on his finger. As painful as it was, she knew she had to let the world see what she had seen. Jet Magazine published the photos of her son, and the world could no longer hide from the ugliness of racism. Her decision to publish those photos is credited to have helped spark the beginning of the civil rights movement.


The artist, Schutz, admits that she knew it was a “problematic painting,” but that she only wanted to acknowledge the horror and tragedy of what happened to Till, not exploit it. Nevertheless, the painting has caused much outcry and artists of color have come together to insist that the painting be removed. Schutz has not requested it, however, and it looks as if the exhibit will stay. Schutz supporters are calling the campaign to censor her painting, “reactionary,” and even “anti-democratic.”


Biennial curators released a statement stating in part, “For many African Americans in particular, this image has tremendous emotional resonance. By exhibiting the painting, we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African-American history and the history of race relations in this country. As curators of this exhibition we believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.”


The Whitney Biennial is set to continue through June 11.


What do you think of an artist’s right to display such a controversial work? Let’s discuss here or on Twitter @lcarterwriter.