For the past week, the art world has been consumed by a debate surrounding Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), a controversial painting currently on view in the Whitney Biennial that features an abstracted view of Emmett Till’s open casket funeral. The Whitney has since updated the label for the work, acknowledging the protest and including a statement from Schutz, and on April 9, it will host “Perspectives on Race and Representation,” an event held by poet Claudia Rankine and her Racial Imaginary Institute that takes the controversy as its starting point.
“There’s a controversy surrounding the work, but what is needed from the art community?” LeRonn P. Brooks, a curator at Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute, said in a phone interview about the planned program. “How can we push the conversation forward, in terms of how artists can use race in their work? What are the consequences, and what is the history?” One of the topics that will be touched on is “racial imagination,” or the way body types and color determine various trains of thought. “Should there be boundaries around that?” Brooks asked.
According to a description on the museum’s website, the talk will address “race, violence, the ethics of representation, and the limits of empathy.” It will be held after museum hours, and will have a limited number of seats. Reserve your place free of charge on the Whitney’s website. Participants have yet to be announced (they will be finalized sometime in the coming week), but Brooks told me that artists and critics will give presentations about the work and its various contexts, and that people who have written about the painting will be present.
Rankine is known for her outspoken experimental poetry, which often tackles various issues related to blackness in America. Her 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric brought her mass critical acclaim, public notoriety, and numerous awards. In 2016, she announced that she would donate the $625,000 she won for a MacArthur “Genius” Grant to funding the Racial Imaginary Institute, a think tank for artists and writers who study whiteness. The goal, Rankine said last year, is to have the institute “be in the same playing field” as major New York galleries like Gagosian and Pace.
In an interview with Artnet today, Christopher Y. Lew, who co-curated the biennial, said that Open Casket would remain on view, rejecting artist Hannah Black’s call in an open letter for the work’s destruction because Schutz is a white woman benefiting from black trauma. That petition resulted in Whoopi Goldberg, speaking on the television program The View, saying that Black should be “ashamed” of herself. The fallout from the controversy has even included a fake apology letter, ostensibly sent by Dana Schutz’s studio to the press, which was debunked by Whitney representatives within an hour of it appearing in reporters’ email inboxes.