Emmett Till Painting by White Artist Draws Protest

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Abstract art is usually open to interpretation, as is the case with a piece showing at the Whitney Biennial in New York entitled "Open Casket" depicting Emmett Till, who was mutilated and murdered in the south in the 1950s after a white woman claimed he grabbed and whistled at her.

But this particular piece of art (see below) is bringing outrage and protests because the artist — Dana Schutz — is white, and many are saying her abstract interpretation is exploitive, oversteps racial sensitivities, and appropriates a horrific and traumatic tragedy for African-Americans. 

“I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother,” Shutz wrote in a statement. “Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his."

The curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, defended their inclusion of the work in the exhibit in a separate statement saying:  

"The 2017 Whitney Biennial brings to light many facets of the human experience, including conditions that are painful or difficult to confront such as violence, racism, and death. Many artists in the exhibition push in on these issues, seeking empathetic connections in an especially divisive time. Dana Schutz’s painting, Open Casket (2016), is an unsettling image that speaks to the long-standing violence that has been inflicted upon African Americans.

"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."

At the museum, a small group has been blocking the painting from view and dozens of artists have signed artist Hanna Black's open letter to the museum asking that the painting be removed and destroyed. 

When does art cross into appropriation and exploitation? Baruti Kopano, an associate professor at Morgan State University and co-editor of "Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture," weighs in on that question and discusses the controversy. Click on the 'Listen' button above to hear the full discussion.