"The spectacle of Black trauma"
Why Double Standards in Representation Need to End in the Arts
The censure with which a painting of Dana Schutz’s son was met in June reveals a double standard in representation of sensitive subjects in art. Olamiju Fajemisin dissects the shortsightedness of the white gaze and reflects on a more adequate way of showing grief.
23. July 2018
Representation of Arlo is a candid depiction of Dana Schutz’s young son by Melbourne-born painter Hamishi Farah. Upon being shown at Basel’s LISTE art fair this year it was largely seen as just another painting in London gallery Arcadia Missa’s group booth. That is, until German art and lifestyle magazine Monopol called Farah’s work “revenge art” in reference to Schutz’s painting Open Casket, first shown at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and covered the boy’s eyes on their site. Yet as the gallery reflected on Instagram, this same outrage was not displayed towards Open Casket, which depicted the mutilated cadaver of lynched fourteen-year-old Emmett Till.
The difference in response prompts me to ask why the integrity of Farah’s subject is worth more than Schutz’s, as Farah’s aim was to avert the white gaze. This also begs the question as to whether there is a way to approach sociopolitical issues in an artistic context without being exploitative? Or is exploitation a fundamental part of shock art?
There are two well-known images of Emmett Till. The first was printed in a local Mississippi newspaper the day after his death was announced in 1955; it shows the boy smartly dressed on Christmas Day, smiling with a wry innocence. The second, which I chose to see only once, shows the same boy in his casket, his face mutilated to beyond human likeness. Schutz’s interpretation takes the brutal image, which went on to represent much of the subsequent anti-lynching movement, and reduces it something wholly unfamiliar. Lisa Whittington, a Black woman who has also created work in Till’s likeness, has explained: “The horror was too gentle in her work. She fell short and did not tell a complete story.” Till’s image becomes palatable under Schutz’s gaze. He’s now another statistic and could easily be one of the many Black men we see dying in one of the new videos that circulate on social media regularly. When Schutz chose to mute the terror, she took away his significance. In doing so she makes sure the thing that links her and Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, is a mother’s sorrow.
Many ask if Farah’s rebuttal can be entirely justified. Protests against Schutz’s painting were personal yet non-violent (open letters, social-media storms, boycotts, and calls for removal) yet it became the general consensus that Farah, in depicting Schutz’s still-living son, had actively invaded the artist’s privacy – a violation of both person and confidentiality, despite the fact Farah’s reference image had already been published online.
There is something deeply uncomfortable about Representation of Arlo. In fact, in its report on Farah’s artistic response, Monopol eventually removed the image of the painting altogether. Such discomfort wasn’t felt by publications reporting on the Whitney Biennial. The spectacle of Black trauma is something to consume, to feel shocked by, perhaps also saddened. It is something to gawk at for a minute or two before retreating back into a comfort zone. For this reason, Farah’s painting sustained outrage: for too many, it’s too familiar. The world can be tolerant of voyeurism, of observing an otherworldly experience for as long as endurable, but to consume the portrait of a white toddler in the same way is too dangerously familiar to palate in the name of art. It took two paintings to expose a white fragility complex. This biased gaze only proved that the public sees a Black child as just another body, yet views a white child who suffered no harm worthier of privacy and respect.
Amid the post-biennial frenzy, Schutz’s email was hacked. The perpetrator sent a letter of apology to several online cultural publications including Artsy and Frieze, expressing her alleged regret and pleading with co-curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks to remove Open Casket. In an idealistic world, and if the letter were true, this would surely be the ideal way to conclude the bitter controversy, but in the removal and destruction of the painting there would be nothing for people to critique. Hannah Black’s words in her petition to destroy the work served as a catalyst for one of the more interesting and productive conversations regarding art and racial exploitation today, even if not all comments were constructive.
In an interview with Artnet, Schutz continued to press on with her stubborn justification: “I do think that it is better to try to engage something extremely uncomfortable … than to not respond at all.” It is necessary to engage in the controversy in order for change to be enacted, but is unjustifiable for art to be exploitative in order to be provocative. When Hiro Murai’s music video for US rapper Childish Gambino’s track This is America was released this May, it was summarized by the press as being an artistically masterful depiction of the state of race relations in the USA today, yet it also raised questions as to whether graphic imagery of anti-Black violence is really necessary to convey the message. Sociopolitical tension is one of the greatest themes in the twenty-first century and has been parodied in pop culture for years now, but need it always be at the expense of someone? The sensation of horror porn being used as a marketing tactic has the long-term adverse effect of desensitization. It is a clear comment on the human condition that an image of the unharmed Arlo was more outrageous than that of Till’s body.
Dana Schutz’s shortfall was her inability to recognize the fact that the legacy of Emmett Till is and will always be a wholly racial issue. To erase that part in her rehashing of his story was a careless, if not manipulative act – even if unwitting. If Schutz were to acknowledge the brutality of her reference image she would not have met such wrath. She could have followed the example of LA artist Henry Taylor. THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!, also shown at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, depicts the murder of Philando Castile at the hands of police in 2016. Taylor’s work is in no way hyperrealism, yet defines fear itself in the simple rendering of the police officer’s gun. Castile was represented fairly and the Black public understood the artwork. One of the protestors at the biennial, Parker Bright, who stood in front of Open Casket wearing a t-shirt with “black death spectacle” on the back, said Schutz “[had] nothing to say to the black community about black trauma.” And that is exactly the point – Schutz was blinded by her white gaze as she created her work, only keeping a white audience in mind, which not only serves as a perfect example of the art world’s double standards, but also proves why they must change.
Olamiju Fajemisin is a British-Nigerian freelance writer based in Berlin. Her work focuses on art, music and contemporary culture with an emphasis on race.