In painting a portrait of Emmett Till, did a white artist cross the line?
That's the question protesters are raising over a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City. The show includes 'Open Casket,' an abstract painting of Emmett Till's open casket after the teenager was brutally beaten and murdered in 1950s Mississippi—and the artist, Dana Schutz, is a white woman.
Protesters have questioned whether it was an appropriate subject for a white artist to tackle. In an open letter to the Whitney's curators, artist Hannah Black said Schutz's depiction of Till was exploitative.
"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," she wrote.
Artist Parker Bright, who is African American, has been leading protests in front of the painting wearing a shirt that says "Black Death Spectacle." Some critics have called for the painting to be taken down or even destroyed.
Joining Boston Public Radio to discuss the painting and the outrage it has inspired were Reverends Irene Monroe and Emmett Price. Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist, and Price is a professor and the Founding Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Monroe and Price both argued that artists have the right to portray the subjects of their choosing, but they believe that Schutz's work missed the mark.
"It's aestheticizing black pain and suffering," Monroe said of the painting.
"[Schutz] fits into what I can best depict as the trope of the 'white rescuer,' who de-historicizes the narrative that goes with Emmett Till," Monroe continued.
Price agreed that the painting removed Till from his historic context, pointing to a statement made by the artist herself. Schutz, responding to public criticism, said previously: “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."
The problem, Price pointed out, is that assuming any mother could fully feel Mamie Till's pain diminishes the extent of the tragedy she experienced.
"[Schutz] tried to parallel her own sense of empathy with Mamie Till's sense of empathy, which, in my opinion, totally minimizes this situation," Price said.
Click on the audio player above to hear the entire interview with Reverends Irene Monroe and Emmett Price.