Dana Schutz: Artist of Controversy

As in great many other fields of human life the world of art was considered a gentleman’s club from antiquity right up to the end of the twentieth century. Men were considered serious artists and professionals, while women were allowed ‘to dabble’ in watercolor or harmless landscapes. Based on women’s stereotypical role as secondary citizens and housewives without many outside interests, except immediate needs of their families, women were not considered art school ‘material’ or human beings capable of independent intellectual and artistic achievement. While women were busy acting as ‘natural’ servants to their fathers and husbands, the history of art was filling up with names like Rubens, Picasso, de Kooning, Monet and so on. Only towards the twentieth century women started making a name as successful painters with many notable artists rising from obscurity. Just to name a few Natalya Goncharova, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, and Margaret MacDonald were gaining some acclaim and were somewhat able to make ends meet with their work.

Dana Schutz has made a mark as one of the twenty-first century women painters breaking the glass ceiling and making it in this former exclusive boys art world. The popularity of her art as well as financial success makes her a contemporary painter of note. Many art critics like Jarrett Earnest and Katy Siegel have commented on the strength of her work and especially, on her ability to depict deep narrative situations on canvass as well as her humorous abstract representations of life circumstances. Incidentally, as a female painter breaching the traditional obstacles women face, she created some works that are receiving their share of controversy. One of such works is Open Casketexhibited at Whitney Biennial in the spring of this year and that has caused much outrage, to the point when some activists actually petitioned it to be removed from the exposition. Schutz was accused of using the suffering of others for financial gain, which seems dubious since this painting was not meant for profit (as far as we can say). It could be suggested that as a minority painter, Schutz’ financial success might be irking some of her critics.

The purpose of art is to invoke a whole array of feelings from outrage to happiness and anger. Emotions are then collected and distilled into the intellect to later influence our taste and aesthetic decisions. Obviously, Schutz has generated her fair share of controversy with her painting Open Casket, which activists have criticized for being inappropriate and exploitative because of its subject matter.Till was a 14-year-old African-American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after offending a white woman in a grocery store.  The tragic murder once again exposed racially motivated violence in America. This story gained so much outcry because of the fact that Mamie Till, the victim’s mother insisted on an open casket for her son’s funeral with the purpose for the world to see the atrocity that her son and many other young African Americans were suffering in America.

Recently, as America has witnessed numerous murders of other young African Americans like Trayvon Martinthe lynching of Till resurfaced once again in the collective mind and probably has influenced yearning of Schutz as an artist to expose this culture of victimization. Thepush back has been quite consistent with other artists like Hannah Black declaring that “it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun… although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist” (Artnet News). In response to this criticism Schutz states “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.” Based on Schutz’ commentary since her  intention was to show empathy for a cause and raise awareness against the deplorable treatment of African Americans. Unfortunately, rejecting the input of a painter fighting for a non-white cause because she is white is not very inclusive. As Horace in the Art of Poetry stipulates, the purpose of art is to educate and entertain. Educating people about racial violence through the universal platform of art is something that Schutz is doing in her unique abstract manner.

Art is an interpretation of life from the viewpoint of the artist. As Immanuel Kant suggested, art is supposed to be pure of ulterior motives, but should be solely focused on representing societal phenomenon. Kant further insisted that aesthetic judgment is free of any bias and this iswhat gives an artist creative license to breach topics that could be considered taboo in other cases. Schutz is utilizing this creative license when she tries to expose racial violence in modern day America. As a minority painter, she understands the position of the underdog since being a woman in a profession that has been hitherto dominated by men can be pretty daunting. The negative reaction to the painting seems extreme because she is a woman who has succeeded so well as a painter, especially as reflected in prices her paintings fetch in the art market.

Interpretation is also the cause of the controversy that Open Casket is currently undergoing. Art critic Karen Rosenberg insists that Schutz as an artist attempts to challenge herself to paint situations that can be potentially awkward or gross and this is what makes her such an accomplished artist. Interpretation within the context of the narrative can lay the controversy to rest. Yet, it goes without saying that some activists are more interested in claiming a cause while blatantly misconstruing the message in Open Casket by taking it out of context. Other artists, for example Kara Walker, have come to Schutz defense. In her Instagram video Walker states that “the history of painting is full of graphic violence and narratives that don’t necessarily belong to the artist’s own life… art often lasts longer than the controversies that greet it” (The New Yorker, 2017). This is true as sometimes personal bias can create a cloud of controversy in the interpretation of the work of an artist, which later generations might not at all agree with. Using art as a platform is tricky, but trying to understand the context of a work could help.

No publicity is bad publicity and many successful artists have seen their share of bad publicity because of the controversial nature of their art. In some cases, the impression is motivated by norms and tastes of the period, while in others it is simply the fact that the topic is a no-go area. This is the case with Dana Schutz’Open Casket in which she recreates the result of a lynching. Her intention as she tells interviewers was to expose white shame against racial violence. Unfortunately, many activists have reprimanded her for being a non-Black trying to tell a Black story in order to make money. Yet, amidst this controversy, Schutz’s work is an optimal depiction of violence against a minority.

Works Used:

Earnest, Jarrett. In Conversation: Dana Schutz with Jarrett Earnest” The Brooklyn Rail. 2012.

Horace. The Art of Poetry. The Critical Tradition: Classic Text and Contemporary Trends.

Boston: Bedford, 2005.

Rosenberg, Karen “The Fantastic and Grisly, Envisioned” The New York Times. October 2015

Siegel, Katy. Dana Schutz Paintings 2002-2005. Waltham MA: The Rose Art Museum

Brandeis University, 2006.

Tomkins, Calvin. “Why Dana Schutz Painted Emmet Till”. The New Yorker

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Author: Nina Mdivani