Art as Subject of Protest

By Diane Williams

The Whitney biennale’s controversy with artist, Dana Schutz’ painting depicting a mutilated face of Emmett Till, a 14-year old African American boy who was tortured and lynched by two white men in 1955 has been a contentious subject on my social media feed. After reading both sides of the story, still some ambivalence as to which side to take or if there is even a side to affirm as things are never black and white (no pun intended. Really.). In all seriousness, the issues surrounding this incident is not surprising as civil unrest and vitriol is deeply felt by most Americans today. The 2016 election triggered and aggravated a multitude of problems we are facing and the presidential outcome undoubtedly divided many Americans.  Race relations problem is among the many complex hurdles we are facing still to this day.

This subject prompted me to art critic and writer, Hal Foster’s “Art as Ethnographer?” written in 1995 which some argue to be outdated but undeniably offers some insights to contemporary art making.  In this essay, Foster questions the effectiveness of the role the artist plays as an ethnographer. Ethnography is the systematic study of people and cultures. It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study.

Foster sites assumptions that lead to the dangers of ideological patronage. The assumption that if the artist is not socially or culturally other, then he or she has limited access to this transformative alterity (otherness) however, if the artist is perceived as other, then he or she has automatic access to it. Many contemporary artists are well aware of the accusations as contributors of pseudo-ethnography but the subject of culture is immensely complex and given today’s political culture, the subject of the “exotic other” as coined by Edward Said in his book “Orientalism” is more relevant now than ever.

As she paints the piece, Dana Schutz admits that her painting of Emmett Till will be problematic. It is certainly igniting dialogue that both artists and viewers alike must think critically before taking a “side”. Perhaps it’s a question of misrepresentation by the artist? We know that the artist is a white woman who used ‘alterity’ as a primary point of subversion of dominant culture. If the artist weren’t known for depicting subjects in her paintings as humorous points of departure, would the painting receive protests? Does our present political culture that promotes systematic racism stemming from the 45th President down to our local law enforcement contribute to this heightened critique of this piece? There are various reasons for this important debate but both sides should be considered before making statements, as they should be thought of with respect and contemplation if our intention is to recognize one another and coexist.