Who Can Represent Black Pain? Hannah Black’s Letter to the Whitney Biennial
Three weeks ago, the British artist and writer Hannah Black published an open letter to the curators and staff of the Whitney Biennial demanding that Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket be removed from the exhibition. Her reasons concerned the rights, or lack thereof, of white artists to make and benefit from work about black pain. In her letter, signed by forty-seven others, Black wrote, “it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the process has been normalized for quite some time.” To this she added, “[T]hose non-black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material.” Then, like an open flame in an old estate, a debate over race, empathy, and artistic freedom spread through American media.
The conflagration that Black has started with Schutz’s kindling is one to watch, especially for the aftermath. Until recently, the idea of prohibiting white artists from representing black pain, lest they profit from their work, was unheard of. Today it’s being batted around on The View. Are we—should we be—seeing the end of white art that highlights black suffering?
Regrettably, the painting in question doesn’t have the depth to answer Black’s powerful letter. Open Casket, an abstraction based on photographs from the funeral of the murdered Emmett Till, amounts to little more than formal experiment with Till’s sacred, disfigured face. Mounds of paint stand for massively swollen wounds. You’re meant to see him from the perspective of his mother; you cannot recognize your son at his funeral. These horrors were already covered by the original, shocking photographs, and it appears this painting has nothing more to say about the tragedy besides black lives matter, and it’s actually hard to hear it say that.
History, though, can test Black’s suggested prohibition on white art about black pain better than Open Casket can. Why not take down the racially empathic work made when white profit and black suffering were at all-time highs? Should we? Consider J.M.W. Turner’s Slave Ship of 1840, an abstraction quite unlike Open Casket, but likewise painted sixty years after its racist tragedy, the Zong massacre.
Even though money is still being made from it at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, its removal on Black’s grounds is unthinkable. This is because Slave Ship never fails to sink the viewer once gets she gets close enough to see what she’s looking at: enslaved people, thrown overboard for the insurance, drowning into the stomachs of seagulls and sharks. In 1840, Slave Ship taught Turner’s many admirers that landscape’s glorious sun sets on an ocean of black suffering. Without it, we would forget this critical lesson about an entire genre and perhaps forget a signal event in the awful history of the Middle Passage.
Slave Ship doesn’t tell us what it is like to be black, it tells us what it looks like to be black. White empathy can be extremely valuable when it takes art just that far, for when it’s done right, it can make white viewers wonder what looking like that would be like. A ground-up understanding of racial justice begins this way. Consider also, for instance, the cover of Robert Frank’s The Americans. Frank, a white Swiss photographer on a Guggenheim survey of American civilization, repeatedly captured what it looked like to be black next to what it looked like to be white. His most decisive shot was Trolley, New Orleans, taken in the aftermath Till’s murderers’ acquittal, right before Rosa Parks refused to move. Everyone saw this segregation every day in the South. But no photographer showed us better, or in starker terms, what that symbolic violence did to people. Why keep white artists from shooting black pain, if Trolley might be the result?
Black’s letter will now put the heat on curators to avoid white artists working with black pain in any way. As Turner’s and Frank’s works attest, a prohibition on white artists showing us what black suffering looks like makes no sense. However, a prohibition on white artists trying to show what black pain is like does make sense. We can see why in Open Casket’s mistakes. Imagine if there were a recording of the wails of Emmett Till’s mother at his funeral. You don’t go and interpret them in a guitar solo if you’re white. But that is what Schutz did with Mamie Till’s vision of her son.
Now that black suffering is beginning to matter to the fine art market, black artists should be the ones to profit from showing us what that is like, should they feel comfortable doing that. Painting about what black pain is like, and not merely what it looks like, would be a revelation in the fine arts. That said, black painters who want to walk this path have competition, not just with non-black artists, nor merely with each other, but with the cell phone and body cam footage that have made black suffering matter to curators now. Turner, Frank, and countless black artists have made slavery, segregation, and racial inequality unforgettably visible. But in the case of police abuse, that crucial task no longer falls to artists. No one who has seen the videos will ever point to objects in contemporary art galleries to make the point visible, as Turner and Frank once helped us do.
There is another painting in the Biennial that competes with the photography it’s based on—Henry Taylor’s The Times They Ain’t a Changing Fast Enough!. No one who has seen the cell phone video will point to Taylor’s painting to show others Philando Castile’s murder. The video fully captures the needlessness of Castile’s death. But Taylor’s painting hints at the blackness of black suffering—what that is like, beyond what it looks like. Taylor’s splattering, calculated naïveté describes the murderous scenario as if it were a life lesson in a children’s book. This is the blackness of the painting’s suffering. This deadly encounter with the police is described as an experience life has waiting in store, like a first day of school or taking the bus across the city. It’s too early to tell if a white artist would be able to see the video this way. In any case, a black artist has, and it is a lesson to see before it inevitably gets sold and forgotten.