This year’s Whitney Biennial boasts a theme of “the formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society,” with work that focuses on race, immigration, and activism. However, what has been dominating the media in regards to the Biennial is the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s 2016 Open Casket, the painting depicting the dead, brutalized body of Emmett Till. While the aim for the Biennial is to promote self and the individual within society, some of the works included in the show this year do the opposite. Instead of exploring the individual, certain artists use tropes and generalizations to convey their meanings on issues like race.
Open Casket is problematic mostly because Schutz is a well-to-do white woman commenting on an issue in which she has no place. She claims that through this painting, she was attempting to understand the feelings of Emmett Till’s mother after the murder of her son, Schutz being a mother herself. However, her rationalization is not a strong enough argument for the painting. By using the image of a severely beaten and disfigured Till, Schutz is using him as a spectacle to symbolize black death from white brutality, an epidemic that is currently happening in the United States. Appropriating Till essentially turns him into a stand-in for any other black body that has been the victim of white brutality. Open Casket dehumanizes and commodifies Emmett Till and his murder by making him a trope.
Even certain works by black artists do not rise to the occasion to tell the stories and experiences of specific black people, rather rely on generalizations and cliches having to do with the black experience. In the wall text accompanying the work of Deana Lawson, it describes her work as “subvert[ing] the ways in which portrayals of Black bodies are often subjected to biased perceptions of Black personhood in American culture.” Yet, Lawson’s images are in fact staged compositions comprised of strangers on the streets. They fall back on stereotypes often attributed to working to lower-middle class black folk,
such as Signs from 2016. The photograph depicts a group of young black men against a blank black background. All of the men are shirtless, wear loose pants low on their hips to expose the waistband of their underwear, sport tattoos, and hold their hands above their hands above their heads or obscure their face to show various gestures. The young men featured in Signs may or may not be affiliated with gang activity, but it is obvious that the work intends for the viewer to conjure a backstory for these men on the premise that their hand signals could be gang signs. If Lawson’s work is meant to turn black stereotypes on their head, then why would she employ those exact stereotypes she wishes to disrupt? Similarly, there is a lack of relationship between using complete strangers staged in scenes that appear to be everyday moments between friends and family. By creating these vague, unspecific portraits, Lawson in fact encourages the viewer to project their own ideas onto the subjects. In a museum like the Whitney, this means the average viewer is an upper-middle to upper class white person, therefore their own ideas of these subjects will most likely fall back prejudices. In this way, the subjects of Lawson’s photographs are commodified in the same way Emmett Till is in Open Casket, and in a way that is the opposite of Lawson’s intentions for the work and the Whitney’s theme for this year’s Biennial.
For a show that boasts diversity and individuality through the races and genders of the artists featured, and through those exact themes that are supposedly shown through the work, the 2017 Whitney Biennial in fact falls somewhat flat. Although there is great work to be seen, some of the work does not live up to the radical ways of conjuring the self that the Whitney boasts it does this year.