Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Continuing something written in March, and left to sit,  now reworked and up.

Hannah Black
To the curators and staff of the Whitney biennial:
I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.
Antwaun Sargent
Last Thursday evening, the Whitney Museum held a private reception for members to celebrate the opening of its 78th biennial. As the party ensued, images of the biennial’s artworks surfaced on social media sites, and the 24-year-old, emerging black artist Parker Bright came across a painting by the white artist Dana Schutz....

As the 2017 Whitney Biennial opened to the public the day after the reception, Parker walked into the museum’s fifth-floor galleries wearing a shirt that read, “Black Death Spectacle,” and stood in front of Schutz’s painting, blocking it from view for several hours.

“It is very important to keep in mind…that there is a divide between what the public perceives and what the curation intends to be perceived by the public,” wrote Bright in a letter after his protest.
The words on the t-shirt:"black death spectacle"
It's not an interesting painting, and it's also a cheap gesture.

"[T]here is a divide between what the public perceives and what the curation intends..."  The curators followed Schutz, taking her intention as their own.

Adam Shatz
Schutz’s critics accuse her, first, of aestheticising atrocity in an offensive and insensitive way. ‘Where the photographs stood for a plain and universal photographic truth,’ Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye argue in the New Republic, ‘Schutz has blurred the reality of Till’s death, infusing it with subjectivity.’ But ‘aestheticise’ is precisely what painters can’t help but do when they paint from photographs; think of Gerhard Richter’s paintings of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists who died in police custody, or of Picasso’s Guernica. It may be impossible for a painting of an atrocity not to ‘aestheticise’ horror. The charge could be levelled at a painting of another racist atrocity at the Whitney Biennial, Henry Taylor’s depiction of the death of Philando Castile, who was killed in his car by a Minnesota police officer last July. But Taylor, unlike Schutz, is black.
...Seldom has the charge of cultural appropriation stung so sharply in liberal circles. White fascination with black culture turns to gruesome intellectual property theft in Jordan Peele’s brilliant new horror film, Get Out, whose villains kidnap black people to steal their brains. ‘I want your eyes, man,’ one of the perpetrators, a seeming liberal, says to a young black man. ‘I want those things you see through.’

Schutz makes no claim to see Till through black eyes. In her response to the protest letter, she said plainly that she has no way of understanding ‘what it is like to be black in America’, which can be read either as a disarming expression of humility, or (less charitably) as a failure of imagination. But she has otherwise deferred to the terms of the debate set by the protesters, who argue that experience, if not identity itself, confers the right of representation. As a mother, Schutz says, she can imagine the pain of Mamie Till Mobley, who lost her 14-year-old son, and is therefore qualified to use this image to create a ‘space for empathy’. The effect of her comment was to assert a right to represent rooted in personal experience, and to further particularise suffering. But black history – as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin, among others, always stressed – is American history; confronting it a common burden.

...What is most troubling about the call to remove Schutz’s painting is not the censoriousness, but the implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines. 
The original, shocking, political gesture was Mamie Till's decision, and only hers to make. That's the role of intimacy in politics, the role liberal universalists don't understand. Taylor's painting is much more direct. It fits the model of "political art", telegraphing a point where the sympathies are obvious.  It doesn't play games across contested territory, at least not contested among liberal followers of the arts. Shatz refers to Richter's October 18, 1977, but Richter is a German facing Germans. And Picasso was a Spaniard doing the same. The parallel to Schutz could be seen as Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, and the film that was made from it.

Gerhard Richter, Confrontation 2, and 3, both 1988
Again, this has nothing to do with appropriation or art as such. The issue is the art of assumption, of well-meaning appropriation. Artists who steal and don't give a shit are more respectful of their sources than those who pander.  Artists who steal, steal what they love, for their own reasons and without apology. In considering failure, we're back to the Salon Painters.

Picasso's disfigurements of women were honest depictions of his own fears, the misogyny described as much as indulged. The description makes them interesting. Schutz' painting, stripped of context -again a context she simply indulges- is more a formal exercise than a depiction of a human being.  Shatz refers to Schutz' painting as an act of "radical sympathy", but that's a judgment, not a fact. And it's a judgement that's not only his to make. "Some of my best friends are Jews!" Do not those who are being offered sympathy have the right to judge? Liberals are horrified to think that Get Out refers to them.

Shatz also discusses John Ahearn, but the issues aren't the same. Ahearn's mistake was to transform private art, for and about friendship, into public monuments. That's a much more complex issue.

For now the obvious answer to Schutz, and to Shatz, obvious because her work is on view at the same time, is Alice Neel at Zwirner, curated by Hilton Als.
Alice Neel, Ballet Dancer, 1950, Oil on canvas 20 1/8 x 42 1/8 inches
From the start Alice Neel's artistry made life different for me, or not so much different as more enlightened. I grew up in Brooklyn, East New York, and Crown Heights during the 1970s when Neel, after years of obscurity, was finally getting her due. I recall first seeing her work in a book, and what shocked me more than her outrageous and accurate sense of color and form—did we really look like that? We did!—was the realization that her subject was my humanity. There was a quality I shared with her subjects, all of whom were seen through the lens of Neel's interest, and compassion. What did it matter that I grew up in a world that was different than that which Linda Nochlin, and Andy Warhol, and Jackie Curtis, inhabited? We were all as strong and fragile and present as life allowed. And Neel saw.

In the years since her death, viewers young and old have experienced the kind of thrill I feel, still, whenever I look at Neel’s work, which, like all great art, reveals itself all at once while remaining mysterious. In recent years, I have been particularly intrigued by Neel’s portraits of artists, writers, everyday people, thinkers, and upstarts of color. When she moved to East Harlem during the 1930s Depression, Neel was one of the few whites living uptown. She was attracted to a world of difference and painted that. Still, her work was not marred by ideological concerns; what fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered in her studio, on canvas. 
But by painting Latinos, blacks, and Asians, Neel was breaking away from the canon of Western art. She was not, in short, limiting her view to people who looked like herself. Rather, she was opening portraiture up to include those persons who were not generally seen in its history. Alice Neel, Uptown, the first comprehensive look at Neel’s portraits of people of color, is an attempt to honor not only what Neel saw, but the generosity behind her seeing.

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