There has been worldwide Controversy over a painting done by Dana Schutz titled, Open Casket. Open Casket is an abstract painting of a young black 14-year old boy who was murdered and mutilated by two white men because he was mistakenly accused of flirting with a 21-year-old white women. The painting portrays the face of Slain Emmett Till lying dead in his coffin. The controversial painting was displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The protest began when an African American Artist, Parker Bright started a peaceful protest in front of the painting wearing a “Black Death Spectacle” shirt. Since then many others have come to protest and block people from seeing the open casket painting. Protesters argue that a white women does not have the right to create art around a “black matter subject”. Dana Schutz has argued that the painting was meant to show the distress of a mother losing her son. Overall the painting does bring back an excruciating and defining moment in African American history. The painting is very beautiful and simple but because I am not of African descent I’m sure I cannot relate to the many year of being treated poorly, racism and slavery. I overall side that Dana Schutz painting should not be disapproved of. This is not the only occurrence of an artist portraying a violent event in history through art. The painting does not mock the tragic event and the painting could be used as a memorial for Slain Emmett Till mother who wanted the casket to be left open for the world to see.
Slain Emmett Till was a young African boy who was born on July 25th, 1941 in Argo, Ill. Due to an article called, Who was Emmettt Till? There were a few facts about his earlier child hood. Such that Emmett grew up thriving in a middle class neighborhood and when Emmett Till was younger his mother Maime had left his father and raised Emmett alone. While growing up Emmett had contracted polo when he was six causing him to have a slight stutter. Those who knew Emmet had described him as responsible, funny, and infectiously a high-spirt child. He was a young boy who dreamed of a bright future.1
The day of the famous incident Emmett was in Mississippi during his summer vacation to visit his relatives. He was at a local Meat market chatting with five of his cousins in the parking lot. Emmett had bragged about having a white girlfriend back in Chicago. His cousins did not believe him. It is not made unclear of what made Emmet Till enter into that meat market but he was accused of grabbing, whistling and saying offensive comments to the cashier and as he left the store. Carolyn Bryant, the 21-year-old white women had told a story that Emmet had made lewd comments and whistled at her but in an article by Richard Pere-Pena, Carolyn Bryant had finally spoke up about the allegations and answered, “that part is not true.”2 There have been many stories of the incident even a story where Emmet had entered the store with a cousin and did not see any inappropriate behavior or any lecherous conversation.
The gossip had eventually reached Carolyn Bryant Husband, Roy. In the Article by Richard Pere-Pena had wrote that four days later, Roy, along with his half-brother John W. Milam, went to Till Great Uncles house and kidnapped Emmett. They took Emmett to a tollhouse behind Milam’s place where they beat, tortured and shot him. They then tied a fan around his neck with barbed wire and threw him into the Tallahatchie River.3
Three days later a boy named Robert Hodges was fishing in the Tallahatchie River and a bodies feet sticking out of the water. The body was identified as Slain Emmett Tills. In an article by Arielle Dreher, she describes the found body, she states that,” Tills face was so badly beaten and decomposed from the water that it was difficult to identify him at first, but the ring confirmed it”4, the ring he had on his finger was given to him by his father. Once his mother had seen what had happened to her only son she insisted that his casket would stay open. In an article The Painting that has Reopened Wounds of American Racism, Emmett’s mother wanted it open because “she wanted the world to see what those men had done to her son.”5 Two weeks after Emmet’s body was buried the two men went on trial in Sumner Mississippi. The all-white jury issued a verdict of not guilty explaining that they believed the state had failed to prove the identity of the body. Strider had said that the body had looked more like a body of an older man and had probably been in the water longer than 5 days, expressing his opinion that Till was still alive. People all around the country were outraged by the decision. In the article Black Lives, White Lies and Emmett Till, says that “Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam were charged with murder.”6
The overall story is very sorrowful and sensitive. Ever since Dana Schutz had this painting displayed in the Whitney Museum of American Art is has caused many people to be upset and infuriated. The first protest that appeared was solo. In an article by Randy Kennedy, an African American Artist, Park Bright stood in front of the painting wearing a t-shirt with “black Death Spectacle” written on the back of the shirt facing the viewers.7 He was trying to block people from viewing the painting.
Objections to the painting went viral when Hannah Black a British writer and artist wrote a letter that Tills image was a “black subject matter and off limits to a white artist” and explained that Schutz painting was “exploiting black suffering for profit and fun.”8 She demanded they remove and destroy the painting, but it is not as if Schutz painting was the only work of art inspired by Emmett’s murder. Bob Dylan wrote and performed a song called The Death of Emmett Till. In an article by Caitlin Gibson Dana Schutz says, “It was never for sale and never will be.”9 The painting was never meant to be sold or made to be profited from any sort.
Ms. Schutz said she painted Open Casket as a way to sympathize for the pain that Tills mother had, the distress of being a mother and having to lose a son. In an article by Oliver Basciano, Schutz had emailed a statement saying, “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. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension.”10 It’s not if this is unusual work from Schutz. Schutz usually does work that focuses on “physical suffering and is expressed by using traumatizing bodies and skin.”11
It seems that the biggest response from protesters was the fact that Schutz was a white women. In an article by David Marcus he writes, “the controversy over the painting was not about the content, however its creator.”12 Schutz is being emotionally affected by this event because of the fact that she is not of the right race. There probably would not have been any controversy if the artist was of the other race. This work could also be looked at from another perspective. Schutz painting could reflect Emmett Tills mothers decision of leaving the casket open for others to see. This painting could be a way of keeping Emmett Tills casket open for the public to see just like his mother wanted. To be a reminder of this tragic event to her young boy.
The painting is beautiful and no matter what, this painting will be seen as a remembrance of the tragic event and the hostility that happened to an innocent young boy in 1955. The story of Slain Emmett Till will always be sensitive and upsetting. I cannot relate to years of slavery and racism but this painting does not mock the African American race but instead a way to apprehend the history of race and its relationship in this country.