To the outside eye, the latest controversy to hit the Whitney Biennial makes little sense: a group of black artists, led by Berlin-based Hannah Black, are demanding not only the removal but also the destruction of a painting currently on display. In the past few days we’ve seen countless articles about a certain white artist, and her painting, and rather less discussion of exactly what it is Black is doing. There are two artists in this story, not one! So let’s give Black her due.
To understand what’s going on here, you first need to understand the importance of the Whitney Biennial in the art world. It’s far from being the most important show of any given year, but it’s nearly always one of the most provocative and controversial. In 1987, a largely white and male show was met with a high-profile protest in the form of “The Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney”, a rival show designed to expose the sexism and racism of the art world in general and the Whitney Biennial in particular. Six years later, in 1993, the Whitney placed identity politics front and center: the admission tags, designed by artist Daniel Martinez, read "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white,” and the full ten-minute video of the Rodney King beating was included as an artwork. More recently, the Yams Collective withdrew their work from the 2014 biennial in protest at the “problematic” inclusion of white male Princeton professor Joe Scanlan, who shows as a black woman named Donelle Woolford.
This year especially, the biennial is grounded in what Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian calls “a real emphasis on representation and notions of truth”. As WNYC’s Deborah Solomon puts it, the show is built on artists finding “ways to express their sense of social grievance.” (A whole section, for instance, is taken up by Occupy Museums, with artists organized according to which financial institutions they are most in debt to.) The result is that both the artworks being shown, and the choice of which artworks to show, become much more political than they would be at most other museum shows.
Dana Schutz stands out, in this show, in multiple ways. For one thing, she’s an established New York star, in a show which is heavy on relatively unknown artists from around the country. Her work is instantly recognizable, and impossible to miss: her eight-foot-tall Fight in an Elevator 2 is right in front of you as you step out of the elevator, and is also one of the most financially valuable pieces in the whole show. Schutz is no struggling artist, she’s a privileged art-world celebrity whose paintings fetch enormous sums. (One smallish painting, for instance, Face Eater, sold at auction in 2014 for more than $500,000, well above its pre-sale estimate of $60,000 to $80,000.)
That kind of success breeds envy and mistrust. As New York’s Jerry Saltz puts it, for all that Schutz’s work can be found in every major New York museum, she has still been “cast as a ‘market artist,’” the kind of artist whose works are more likely to be found in an art fair than at a biennial. (This is not such a great paradox, when you take a look at the rich white collectors sitting on acquisitions committees and donating paintings to museums.)
“Market,” of course, is code for “white”. Not all financially-successful artists are white, but most of them are, and nearly all big-name dealers and collectors are white. The art world is ultimately powered by some $56 billion per year in sales and purchases, and the overwhelming majority of those trades involve one white person selling art to another white person. If you’re an artist of color who wants to sell in the market, you have to show that you can make work which appeals to rich white people: they, after all, are invariably going to be the people buying and brokering the work.
With all that in mind, it becomes much easier to understand where Hannah Black is coming from in her letter complaining about Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till. Till, of course, was the 14-year-old black boy who was lynched to death in Mississippi in 1955, and whose open-casket funeral was a key ignition point for the civil rights movement. Black says that “Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning,” that “Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture,” and puts forward an “urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum”.
But there’s another thread running through Black’s letter. She complains that “it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun”, describes the piece as “this valuable painting,” and condemns “the capitalist appropriation of the lives and bodies of Black people”. In other words, while she is certainly upset that a white artist has used Emmett Till as a subject, she’s equally upset about the financial exploitation of his image. The problem isn’t only that Schutz is white; it’s also that she’s rich.
On top of that, the letter itself is a highly effective artistic provocation. Black describes herself as an “Artist/writer,” and is well versed in lyrical techniques: three different times, for instance, she ends a paragraph with the simple exhortation “The painting must go.” Similarly, there’s undeniable power and symbolism to the sight of a black man blocking museumgoers from seeing the painting by standing in front of it while wearing a t-shirt featuring the words “black death spectacle”.
These kind of political interventions are deeply familiar to anybody who has followed the history of the Whitney Biennial. Most importantly, they get noticed in a way that an artspeak essay never would, or even a journalistic one. Hannah Black has made hundreds of thousands of people think and talk and reflect on issues surrounding race, representation, and white privilege both inside and outside the art world, all from a base 4,000 miles away from New York City.
What’s more, if you read closely, she’s not – not quite – asking the Whitney to destroy the painting. She’s asking the Whitney to remove the painting, and she’s saying that it should be destroyed, but she doesn’t ever say who should do the destroying. And she has already achieved her goal of ensuring that it not be “entered into any market”: Schutz told the Guardian that the painting is not for sale.
Looked at in the storied context of black political activism at the Whitney Biennial, then, Black’s letter fits right in. When she says, for instance, that white people have no “natural” right to free speech or creative freedom, that’s exactly the kind of provocation at which the Biennial has always excelled. As Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards says, Black’s letter is not only trenchant, but also performative; it should be judged and even lauded as such.
Black’s intervention undoubtedly has a place at the Whitney Biennial. What’s more, it has found its place, and has successfully gotten a lot of attention. Schutz’s painting remains exhibited on the Whitney’s very expensive new walls. But that doesn’t mean that Black hasn’t successfully accomplished exactly what she wanted to achieve.
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