Since the Whitney Biennial opened, much (all?) of the conversation about it has swung around a single painting. Dana Schutz's Open Casket is a gestural semi-abstraction of the bloated face of Emmett Till. Tortured and murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955, the Chicago teen's body was returned to his mother, who insisted on an open-casket funeral so the world could see what had been done to her son. Mamie Till Mobley's decision is one of the most heartbreaking and charged indictments of America in the 20th century, an indictment hinging upon the act of seeing his body. That is, she showed her son's body, asking Americans to see for one moment a ghastly evil, to be confronted by an image of the grotesque violation of and complete disregard for black bodies as it was manifest on the body of her child, and she asked America to stand vigil with her in her loss.
Only Mamie Till Mobley could make this gesture, this particular invitation into this particular moment of grief.
The remaking of the image of Emmett Till by a white artist is inherently about something else, enacts something else completely. In some ways, it invites us to again stand vigil. But it also raises important questions about representation, about community, and about who we see, about the limits of empathy and grief.
Schutz's painting opens old and not-so-old wounds, it tries and it fails, but it also (if we let it) opens up an important series of questions. How can we understand what another body experiences, when our very bodies determine the construction of such understanding? And why would we share an image of someone's lost child, if we are not the ones to feel that loss in the gut-wrenching specificity of its relationship between a mother and child? It is telling that Schutz's painting is gestural, that Till's face is abstractly rendered. The force of seeing Till's body in its open casket always lay in the seeing of it precisely, of seeing every distortion and violence enacted upon it, with soul-searching clarity; abstraction enacts something else. Abstraction fails.
Black artists have been standing in front of Open Casket, blocking it, standing vigil with it, engaging visitors in conversations about its problematics. There has been a petition to remove the painting, to destroy it. In a bizarre twist, a letter supposedly written by Schutz asked for the painting to be removed: after being widely circulated online, the Whitney confirmed that it was not in fact written by the artist. At its best moments, the letter suggests a self-reflective learning from error:
"I want to model a willingness to learn from my mistakes, and honesty about accounting for them. People who have been harmed by and are at risk of continued harm by systems of racist violence are in a much better position to know what is needed for restitution for that violence."
Wouldn't it be remarkable if we had more public moments of trying to build coalitions even (especially) when we make mistakes?
[I should note here that I keep pausing as I write this text. That I avoid my computer, repelled by this document, even as I feel compelled to work through it. This feeling of dread reaffirms the importance of writing through it, even as I know so many more eloquent voices have already written through this, even as I know we should be looking at other works in the biennial rather than giving this one more space. "Only sheer violence is mute," writes Hannah Arendt, and I am reassured that even when my words fail, they are a kind of (imperfect) action. "...finding the right words at the right moment, quite apart from the information or communication they may convey, is action," she writes, as if pushing me to face this essay and my dread.]
The protest, the painting, the history, the instances of daily brutality to black and brown bodies in the U.S., the missteps of white liberals, the deeply entrenched racism of my country, all are riddled with explosives. There are many ways to do this wrong, so many ways to not hear, to make things worse, to fracture the conversation, to avoid engaging. And, at the same time, it sometimes seems so insignificant to devote our energies to a conversation about the politics of a single painting when the world seems to be spinning off its axis, when so many bodies remain in as much danger as always, likely more. It is as if all the weight of all the things we wish we could change falls on this single painting, which could never be strong enough to erase the burden of our failures.
My friends and colleagues are divided in how they respond to the Whitney controversy, argue about the painting's significance or insignificance, the artist's race and her inability to see black experience. I write this text as a white person who works in the arts and who has recently lost two beloved people. I think about what it would mean to me if someone painted the bodies of my loved ones and hung the painting in a museum. The thing is, try as I might to imagine it, that would never happen, not least because their bodies were white. One friend tells me he thinks we should be able to make art about anything we want to, that nothing should be off limits. I fundamentally disagree with those calling for the painting's removal, but I also believe in approaching this image with a special care. While Till's body is part of the visual imaginary of the U.S., it remains the lost body of someone's beloved, it remains the body of a black child murdered by white men. I mull over why Schutz felt she could take on this image, why others believe she has no right to it.
There are few things I can add to the debate about Dana Schutz's painting, nor do I wish to labor longer over it. But I do find it (yet another) call to interrogate whiteness, to delineate what it is, how it moves, where it works, how it is deployed and when. Writing about intuition, Phillip Brian Harper calls for a "sustained interrogation" of whiteness itself. Lacking such an interrogation, he notes, leaves us to believe that these things we intuit in moments of danger, the speculations and ethereal kinds of knowledge that are impossible to describe, that these are without grounding, without evidence. "Precisely because minority experience is characterized by the uncertainty I have already referenced, we basically stake our lives and we take our chances, hoping that we haven't miscalculated the risk," he writes. "Things could go deadly wrong, as I am frequently reminded...." (652) Speculation, Harper writes, is--even if we can't see the connection--tied to very specific material realities. Whiteness is a material reality that, I have to believe, will not continue to be the unspoken social normal, the ground upon which everything else is othered and therefore made strange in the U.S. Indeed, at my most optimistic, I believe that the newest American regime of white nationalism is the bloody, dying gasp of a worldview that sees its obsolescence and is gasping for air, clawing its way to the grave. I pray.
Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda write: "We acknowledge that every act of imaginative sympathy inevitably has limits. Perhaps the way to expand those limits is not to 'enter' a racial other but instead to inhabit, as intensely as possible, the moment in which the imagination's sympathy encounters its limit. Or: to realize one might also make strange what seems obvious, nearby, close." White and black are both achromatic, colors without hue, imbued instead (in the West) with strangely weighted attributes of purity, light, and cleanliness or mourning, dark, and magic. This strikes me as completely bizarre. If we make whiteness weird, if we question its assumptions and its effects, decenter its vocabulary and identify it, we watch it, and check it for the ways it implicitly condones violence to maintain itself, and we inhabit the ways that racial violence works on white people too. It is hard to watch, slippery in a culture that often takes it as the presumed starting point: "Let us simply consider what might happen in the instances... where the objects of our analysis are so ethereal that they appear to offer us no hard evidence at all," Harper writes.
In thinking about whiteness, then, allow me consider something else, from somewhere else.
In February, Marilyn Boror Bor opened a solo exhibition at the Museo de Correos, a community art space in Zone 1, Guatemala City. Titled Nos/otros, the exhibition engaged ideas of self and other (literally we/others) and it consisted entirely of monochromatic, white works and transparencies. Boror's work exists in another historical context, is not embroiled in the specific racial politics of black and white as they are playing out/have played out in the United States (though certainly she has much to say about racism, mestizaje, and indigeneity in Guatemala and Central America). But, then, Boror's exhibition offers other starting points for how we define, where we find, and how we might use the color white. Here, a series of small observations:
1. Two books sit open on a table, most of their words cut out of their pages. One is the Ley de protección y mejoramiento del medio ambiente - the law to protect and care for the environment. The other is the Ley de vivienda, which describes the right to a life with dignity, in adequate and healthy conditions. The holes in the book remove most of the letters, which are inscribed in black. What remains then, are white pages and holes. Whiteness here signifies the absence of protections, the absence of dignity, the absence of law.
2. A series of portraits made of cut paper replicate the look of topographical maps as they outline the contours of faces. Their features suggest that these are portraits of indigenous men and women; the pairing of their faces with the landscape locates them in a country that has tried to wipe them out. Here whiteness is memory, is layering the past over the land, is a call to the lost.
3. A long line of translucent sheets of paper hang from the ceiling. On them, Boror has painted the faces of migrants in white. These are portraits made from people she meets while working in Spain: people from Central America, Africa, Latin America. She works with them, asks to photograph them, asks permission to use their own self-photographs. The white on white, she says, is about invisibility. And yet, as light streams in the windows, the white portraits become brightly visible. "Aveces no se ven y aveces se ven demasiado," she tells me. Sometimes you don't see them, and sometimes you see them so much.
In a project for the 2016 Paiz Biennial in Guatemala, Boror produced a limited-edition book and series of prints in which she looked to objects and words that are beginning to slip out of contemporary usage. Her Diccionario de objetos olvidados includes a series of photographs of single objects against white backgrounds, paired with the word for each object in Kakchikel, an interpretation of the word and object in Spanish, and sentences describing the object's use in both languages. In the book, the images and texts fade almost to white: the fade is about forgetting, but it is also a gesture toward the difficulties of memory. Words, she reminds us, also act as places for locating cultural practice. As they fade to white, they disappear, they are forgotten, they wash away.
But that's the thing about memory. Sometimes as it fades, it becomes more clear. Sometimes the process of its changes make it more approachable, remind us of its relevance. This kind of washed-out whiteness that Boror uses is perhaps also about felt intuition. That is, as we face our days, there is a wash of memories, of lost ones, of ugly histories, of the past that hovers just in our peripheral vision. When Schutz painted Till's open casket, she threw that image back into a sharp and ugly relief, not least because of her own subjectivity cast in relation to the painting's subject. "Is it better to try to make something that’s impossible, because it’s important to you, and to fail, or never to engage with it at all?" she asks Calvin Tompkins for The New Yorker. This is the conundrum of whiteness now, I think. That is, what do we do with it? How do we fail better in our efforts to delineate what it is, what it does, what we do with it or against it? How do we open up what it can mean and admit what it has meant? Let us, as Rankine and Loffreda urge, "inhabit, as intensely as possible, the moment in which the imagination's sympathy encounters its limit." Let us push toward that limit, apologize when we misstep, ask for guidance. John Pluecker, a friend, poet, and activist writes, "Maybe there is no way out without two people, at the very least, two people, a holding of hands, a recital of words. Maybe it's another day again..." It is a plea for encounter, for using our words, for holding our hands together. Again, and again, and again.