The firestorm over Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” has had me thinking over the last several weeks. There has been a lot of back and forth over so many issues and I have opinions on most of them. I’m not here to talk specifically on whether Schutz should have made the painting, but if you think that she was right to make the picture then you need to re-check your understanding of history, power, privilege, and systems of oppression. I can see her thought process in making the painting (trying to find a way, any way to connect and empathize with the horrendous case of Emmett Till) even if it was finally done in a completely ham handed and ultimately ignorant fashion. What I am currently interested in is the failure of painting to connect with the cultural and political milieu.
The painting takes a powerful documentary image (that of Till’s brutalized body as it lays in state) and a powerful turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, and renders it in Schutz’s colorful abstracted style. The background is filled with circular colorful brush strokes, the burial suit is flattened on the surface, and the head of Till is shown in a mass of browns and neutrals swirling in and out of each other. This is not so different from so much of her work or that of many abstract artists working over the last century. It changes the realism and the power of the image into a question of color and brush stroke.
This is one of the major affronts that the painting commits. It changes our interaction with the image. The image is meant to sicken us. It is meant to make us question the immorality and the animal nature of humankind. It is meant to make us see (with our own eyes) the acts that hatred and cowardice can drive people to commit. By changing the parameters of our interactions it robs the image of its power. It takes the history of the image and its depiction of the brutalization of this boy and makes it about paint. It makes it a story of the decisions an artist made, as opposed to a story of our world.
Ultimately I think this becomes interesting as we think of the place of painting today. This is not meant to be yet another of those “Painting Is Dead” screeds (though it may ultimately turn into that) but it is of interest that as I pondered the picture I couldn’t imagine that this painting would have been valid if it had been made by an African-American artist. Painting has lost the power that it once had. It no longer holds the primacy of feeling and emotion, nor does it move quickly enough in our digitized world to engage with the culture around us. Painting cannot shock any more.
I am at pains to say this, as I hold painting in the utmost regard. I am a painter and I’d rather look at a painting than any other form of art. But no painting that I look at, no matter its subject matter, will move me or spur me towards action the way that a documentary or a protest action can. Painting has lost itself in a space where it is primarily interested in speaking of itself and its history. Painting always comes back to that place which speaks of how the image was made, how it was organized, or in what order it is viewed. It is in many ways a curatorial practice. It is a place where no matter the subject, the design and conceptual concerns will always overshadow the narrative.
Painting and even abstraction were once able to engage with a political and cultural state, think of Motherwell or Picasso’s works about the Spanish Civil War, or Siquieros’ murals on the history of Mexico, but that age, now more than half a century past, is no longer relevant. The post modern distance and cynicism that artists have employed no longer allows painting to engage is such a straightforward manner. Contemporary painters put such a veneer on the work that it can no longer engage honestly. Luc Tuymans or Gerhard Richter or Kiki Smith or Kerry James Marshall make amazing work, but it cannot engage with the now. It can engage with the generalities of our world, but dealing with the specificities of the conversation happening in the current news cycle? Painting is useless for such an action.
We need artists that engage in the turnaround of filmed video from cell phones. We need artists that engage in the kind of civil action that so many of the “Open Casket” protesters take (for my money the best art piece at the Whitney this year is the people blocking the views of Schutz’s work). We need artists that engage participants in shared cultural and community exchanges. These are the artists that can move with the ebbs and flows of the cultural discussion; that can immediately call “bullshit” on the pronouncements of the media blowhards that try to obfuscate the facts of world; that can climb upon the ramparts and wave the flags of progressivism and kindness and freedom and empathy. We need to accept that sitting in a studio fretting over the glossy finish on a color or the direction of a brushstroke is perhaps not going change the world, and we must be okay with that.
Being a painter means not being on the forefront of the world any longer. Easel painting after all has a history that goes back 500 or so years. It’s not to say that we cannot find great pleasure in making, looking at, discussing, and reading about the subject, but we have to accept that there are other (perhaps better) ways in which to be more directly involved in the political and ideological discussions around us. This is neither good nor bad, but it is the world that we live in.