Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket:” A Stolen Memorial?

This week, Black Perspectives featured a story about the New York art feature “Open Casket” by Brooklyn artist Dana Schutz. The piece features a mirage of colors to portray a slain Emmett Till in an ‘open casket’ at his 1955 funeral. Till’s murder offset the volatile civil rights movement that would dominate the 1950s and 1960s, staining white America’s fictive purity with the spilled blood of black martyrs. Schutz’s “memorial” painting premiered to abundant opposition for its appropriative aura—given that the artist of this feature painting, Dana Schutz, is a white woman. Moreover, what overtly seems like a memorial for a murdered and mutilated black child, resurrects old wounds and splatters injustice across a painter’s canvass Thus, it seems fitting to stumble across this painting on Memorial Day.

America’s memorial day functions to commemorate those “who died so that we can enjoy the liberties that we do today.” Because this is America, those honored are of course whites. To the black demographic, whites of course did not die for our “liberties,” rather they killed to ensure our deprivation. Thus, this holiday, much like every other holiday of the Western world, is a farce used to promote western fiction. Conversely, Emmitt Till’s murder functions to conceptualize the graphic, senseless, and heartbreaking murders of black youth meant to cast fear in the hearts of even the most resilient. Till illustrates the grave extent of racial terroism. Till is Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice–he is the abducted Africans tossed from the ships into the Atlantic Ocean and he is the the enslaved black youths castrated and killed before crowds of smiling white faces. Till is a memorial that the conscious community does not take lightly—he is a memorial we need not visit physically but visit mentally every time we open and close our eyes. For these reasons, I say Schutz’s so called artistic embodiment falls vastly short.

The image romanticizes a prominent act of racial terroism cast onto the black community by way of a teenage boy’s body. The image manages to capture Till’s disfigured face but fails to include the gaping bullet wound at his temple, shrunken head, and eyeless socket. The original image sears its way into the memory of every viewer whom casts its eyes on its raw truth. Mamie Till’s decision to show the world what white men did to her son was meant to shock viewers out of a romanticized state where racism is “bad” but not deadly. Yet, Schutz’s picture somehow does the opposite. Schutz’s picture dilutes the hot black blood shed in pursuit of equity, diluting it with a pseudo liberalism. In summary, the image does not capture the ugliness of white evil. Instead the work seems a feckless effort to humanize the white woman, or offer a subtle plug for feminism—ignoring the reality that a “white” lie, a white female lie to be exact, was the catalyst for Till’s murder. Furthermore, Schutz’s work operates on a collective amnesia that asks audiences to see the enemy and ally as one in the same—a selfish imposition employed by the racial psychopath unable to feel anything but entitlement.

The western world functions romanticize its demons so that the racial psychopaths that run and own everything may continue to bask in their stolen riches. Thus, any pseudo attempt by whites  to memorialize blacks,  is inevitably counter productive. As a western memorial, the black body is fetishisized— resurrected from the grave solely to be murdered repeatedly by the careless efforts of their oppressors. It is this kind of bizarre paradox, and others like it, that encompass the contemporary white liberal agenda.

Thus, Schutz’ actions are in direct accordance with the premise of Memorial Day. In taking on a prominent piece of black culture, Schutz, like Rebecca Skloot,  author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, memorializes herself by appropriating black culture to culminate an otherwise unremarkable career. It is not that these women actually care about blacks. It is not that they are not racist. In fact, these women are the worst kind of racists. The kind that appear friendly, non-biased and intrigued by the richness of black culture. Then, just like the European thieves who ravished the African coasts centuries ago, these “liberal” whites rape blacks of their jewels and assume African richness for themselves. Furthermore, in appearing to memorialize blacks and black culture the white body memorializes a western culture–a culture deemed great by way of theft and appropriation.

To Schutz, Till is a means to acknowledgment, not a figure symbolic of black deprication. Schutz sees Till as a shell of possibility, not as a casualty of the ongoing African holocaust. Till, amongst all the other black bodies murdered to foment an oppressive system, illustrate a shared experience that blacks must memorialize to ensure their survival. A survival contingent on learning from a past destined to repeat itself if not studied carefully.

So as the western world commemorates memorial day it is imperative to note that the black body remains omitted with regards to its un-relentless valor in the face of white supremacy. To memorialize the African spirit, it is imperative to cease from celebrating the white man on his holidays. Be it Christmas, Thanksgiving or July 4th, all western holidays serve as a means to memorialize white supremacy. Instead, as members of a collective continually exploited and left for dead, it is important to honor our ancestors daily, and not wait for a day off to consider our origins.

We have waited for centuries. Waited for acknowledgement. Waited for rights. We must not wait for the time to celebrate our heroes, for the time will never come. Our lives must function to memorialize our fallen soldiers, illustrating that their deaths, murders, and sacrifices offset an elevated consciousness.

So, this memorial day whether a figure of the past, or a member of your family or community—memorialize someone who was beaten to their knees so that you may live on your feet. For it is not a true memorial of black bodies, if the narrator is not black in color, consciousness and character.