‘Gruesome’ painting reopens scars of racism

“Black death spectacle”: A protester stands in front of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket. © PA

A painting based on a famous photo of a black boy’s corpse has caused a storm. The artist is white; campaigners for racial justice accuse her of cultural appropriation. Is she guilty?

Every second year, the art world looks to the Whitney Biennial for the latest trends in American art. But this year the New York exhibition is drawing a different kind of attention.

The work at the heart of the controversy is white artist Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket. It recreates a photo of the corpse of Emmett Till, a black boy who was murdered in 1955. Activists argue that it is not a white person’s business to depict this pivotal moment in civil rights history.

Till’s story carries a huge symbolic importance. Born in Chicago, the 14-year-old was visiting relatives in Mississippi — then still segregated — when he dropped by a grocery. He allegedly offended the white owner, Carolyn Bryant, by flirting with her; days later, her husband and his half-brother kidnapped Till, tortured and killed him, and dumped his body in a river.

At the funeral, his mother Mamie insisted on keeping an open casket. She encouraged journalists to publish photos of her son’s bloated and mutilated corpse. “Let the people see what I’ve seen,” she said.

The images caused a sensation, fueling a debate on race relations in the country. Till’s case inspired Rosa Parks not to give up her seat on that Alabama bus, and paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Bob Dylan wrote a song about it. Some believe Harper Lee had it in mind when writing To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lynchings may be over, but violence against African-Americans remains a live issue. Schutz says that her painting, while modeled on the casket photos, is also a response to recent police killings of unarmed black men.

But her appropriation of Till’s story has infuriated some. Protesters regularly stand in front of the painting to block the public’s view; one called it “an injustice to the black community.” In an open letter to the curators, black British artist Hannah Black argued that “the subject matter is not Schutz’s,” and called for the artwork to be destroyed.

Schutz countered that “art can be a space for empathy.” She stands by “Open Casket,” as does the gallery. Are they right?

Over his dead body

No, say some. People ought only to depict such a gruesome scene if they are motivated by a personal understanding of the racism that caused it. Mamie had a good reason to get those photos published. But Schutz has nothing to say. She is just exploiting another race’s suffering for shock value and artistic effect.

Hang on, reply others. Racism will not be defeated unless we discuss it openly. Anyone who contributes to this discussion out of genuine concern for the victims of racism is doing a good thing, no matter their colour. We should applaud Schutz for her courage, and condemn those who want to censor her.

You Decide

  1. How does Schutz’s painting make you feel?
  2. Given the controversy, should the exhibition’s curators remove the painting?


  1. Show and tell: bring in a photo of an artwork you admire, and explain your choice to the class.
  2. Listen to Bob Dylan’s song in the link under Become An Expert. Then write a poem or song of your own, based either on Till’s story or another political issue you care about.

Some People Say...

“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”

— Toni Morrison

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Till’s death has had a huge influence on the way Americans think of race relations. Six decades on, his name still resonates. Last week, campaigners, including some of his relatives, met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions to urge him to implement the “Emmett Till Act,” which would empower the FBI and Justice Department to pursue unsolved civil rights crimes.
What do we not know?
Whether Sessions will comply, and what the law’s effect would be if he does.
What do people believe?
Till’s cousin said that Sessions “agreed” with them. The law’s proponents argue that it could give closure to the families of victims of racist crimes. Yet Sessions’ commitment to civil rights has been questioned: He was once denied a judgeship after allegedly making racially insensitive comments.

Word Watch

The “Jim Crow” laws of the South, which enforced different rights for different races, were not fully repealed until the mid-1960s.
The details of Till’s interaction with Bryant are still disputed. According to several (but not all) sources, he wolf-whistled at her. At the murderers’ trial, Bryant herself testified that Till had been far more aggressive than that. But in 2008 she confessed that she had made this up.
The two men were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury. Months later, immune to a second prosecution, they told a journalist that they had indeed killed Till.
Alabama bus
Parks’s famous act of defiance against segregation laws was another pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
Civil Rights Act of 1957
This landmark legislation created protections for African-Americans who were being obstructed from voting. “It certainly strengthened my hand,” one of the law’s proponents said of Till’s death.
Killings perpetrated by a mob, often without a trial. Lynchings were common in the segregated South; the victims were mostly black.

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