The Identity Politics of Art and the Self Immolation of the Left

Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” 2016. Collection of the artist/Whitney Museum - Fair Use
Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” 2016. (Collection of the artist/Whitney Museum - Fair Use)

Unless you’re an aficionado of contemporary art, you’ve likely never heard of Dana Schutz. If you have recently, it’s probably due to controversy surrounding her recent entry into New York’s prestigious Whitney Biennial. The 41 year old Schutz has experienced a backlash at the subject of her latest painting entitled “Open Casket.” The epicenter of the controversy centers on subject of the piece and the race of the painter: the death of Emmet Till, and white, respectively.

For those unfamiliar with the Till tragedy, in 1955 Emmet was an African American 14 year old that was horrifically beaten and lynched after being falsely accused of flirting with a white women in rural Mississippi. His mother’s insistence on an open casket at the funeral, despite her son’s injuries, drew wide public attention and spurred outrage at the endemic brutality of the Jim Crow south (His killers were acquitted by an all-white jury and later bragged openly about their sociopathic deed).

Whence the controversy? Artists often run afoul of a public unversed in the esoteric language of the arts. In 1987, an image by artist Andres Serrano of a crucifix submerged in his own urine caused conservative politicians such as Jesse Helms to demand his National Endowment for the Arts funding be revoked. In 1999, Chris Ofili ran afoul of New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani for his piece “The Holy Virgin Mary,” because it included pornographic imagery and elephant dung.

So what arch-reactionaries are demanding Schutz’s piece be tossed into the East River? That’s where the story gets interesting. The piece set off a firestorm of protest and indignation from some within the artistic community (it’s likely the rest of the planet is blissfully unaware of this unfolding drama). Artist Hannah Black said of the work “In brief: the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.” Artist Parker Bright stood in front of the piece, blocking its view wearing a shirt reading “BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE.” He later said “I feel like she doesn’t have the privilege to speak for black people as a whole or for Emmett Till’s family.”

Racial tensions are running high in America in the wake of an extremely contentious election and the continual addition of videos of unarmed African Americans being beaten or killed by police to YouTube. Was Schutz looking for a land mind to step on? Her comment, after clarifying that the piece would not be available for sale was that “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. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son,” she explained. “The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. It is easy for artists to self-censor, to convince yourself to not make something before you even try. There were many reasons why I could not, should not, make this painting … art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection.”

To be sure, there is ample history of cynical white on black cultural appropriation, and of course systemic racism that make the reasons for such hair-trigger tensions obvious. The appropriation of “blackness” as an identity of pride by a culture that has been and continues to be both marginalized and maligned is both understandable and laudable.

But (there had to be a but, and trigger warning, I’ll be committing the unPC sin of what writer Michael Harriot calls “whitepeopeling”, which is essentially white people associating with African American culture in a way some blacks find objectionable) there is a down side to such identity politics. As Bright’s and Black’s above quotes illustrate, they feel that Schutz is “whitepeopleing” their cultural heritage, like Elvis did to Big Mama Thorton. The problem seems to this heterosexual white male to be this: demanding exclusive dominion over your cultural history cuts you off from those outside your self identified group that deeply care about the plight of the oppressed. It also forestalls the ability of art to serve as a bridge of solidarity and understanding. Compartmentalizing identity politics carries with it the suggestion that humanity is not one family after all, and that those born outside of a particular skin color, religious tradition, or economic strata, have no business caring about the plight of their fellow humans other than than giving passive support when and only when asked. The divisive and often caustic nature of such identity politics puts so many people at odds with one another when many of us share fundamental concerns about our society.

Such internecine squabbling among elements of the left over concerns that, while relevant, are tertiary to the issues facing humanity such as environmental cataclysm, creeping totalitarianism, WMD proliferation and the like, and we simply can’t tackle any of these issues while at each others’ throats. The advocacy for cultural Balkanization, in which different groups jealously defend the borders of their territory is damaging to the sense of sympathy artists like Schutz and others hope to engender, but far more importantly, it is a distraction. In the age of the resurgence of the right in which a reactionary government seeks to roll back the meager social safety net, replace regulatory agencies with the “honor system” of market forces, and pump yet more billions into a defense system that’s lost track of trillions of dollars, elements of what’s left of the left are expending valuable energy cannibalizing themselves for the crime of unsanctioned empathy. While the drug war rolls onward, sweeping innumerable poor people into private prisons, while rampant corruption dominates both political parties in America, and while we watch as human impact on the environment continues unabated, those outraged culture warriors that saw fit to advocate the suppression of free speech might do well to take a larger view beyond the rarified art world.