« Features

Push to Flush. American Iconoclasm and Painting

(Or Why Dana Schutz’s Painting of Emmett Till Goes Far Beyond Freedom of Expression)

By Paco Barragán

The recent controversy about Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) at the Whitney Biennial is reminiscent of similar incidents in the United States that keep popping up with frenzied fury.

In this case, the attack came from inside the art world: An artist named Hannah Black triggered the controversy against a fellow artist by sending an open letter of complaint to the curators and staff of the Whitney Biennial. “I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum,” she wrote. “The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute black suffering into profit and fun.”

Most of the discussions taking place in social media and the press have been articulated around issues of a) freedom of expression b) politically correctness or, to a lesser extent c) the formal or artistic qualities of a painting. But these debates all miss the point. Concerning Schutz’s freedom of expression, Whitney curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, said it best. “As curators of this exhibition, we believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.” It has always been very clear to me that while the visual arts don’t have the same reach and critical mass as film, advertising or pop music, they can more easily confront difficult, thorny or violent topics to push the limits and provide a new or different perspective, though not necessarily more emancipated or just. Artists are not saints, but they have the right to express themselves.

Secondly, the orthodoxy of political correctness, which manifests itself here in Black´s words of non-black people lacking the morality, sensibility and understanding of violence against African Americans, is a very simplistic, reductive and static view of society. It is also an example of cultural essentialism, which hinders our ability to have a serious debate about urgent topics like racism, injustice, poverty and oppression that affects primarily, though not solely, African Americans in the U.S. As for the formalistic argument, I will quote Los Angeles-based Italian painter Nicola Verlato, who wrote this on his Facebook page: “The choice of making the defacement of Emmett Till coinciding with a ‘painted defacement’ of the face is inappropriate because it negates the figure and as such neutralizes a potentially wider social engagement of the work. And by choosing to re-present the unrepresentable, Schutz is in a way reenacting the aggression made against the kid by the act of painting the disfigured face.”

Dana Schutz, Open Casket, 2016, oil on canvas. (The photo was omitted in order not to fuel this polemic any longer)

Dana Schutz, Open Casket, 2016, oil on canvas. (The photo was omitted in order not to fuel this polemic any longer)

Iconoclastic Unconscious

And here lies the clue that can help us understand the heart of the matter: defacement or abstraction. The history of mankind is basically the history that mediates between the icon and iconoclasm, in other words, from the obedient reverence of the image to the fierce repudiation of it. This iconoclastic horror is not only present in Islam, but also in Judaism and, in particular, Protestantism. Meanwhile, the relationship of Catholicism with the image has been more tolerant. According to James Simpson in Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, Pope Gregory declared famously between 599 and 600 that images were like books for the illiterate.

For the Anglo-Saxon iconoclasts, a long-standing tradition that manifested itself with unusual ferocity in England between 1538 and 1643, the image was an idol that represented the old political, religious and even cultural regime. We have to come to terms with the English Revolution with its iconoclastic vigor in the name of freedom and The Enlightenment that neutralized ‘the image’ by inserting it into museums, as well as Modernism and its formalist, ahistorical and apolitical interpretation of art history and Abstract Expressionism that finally takes the process to a zero degree level: compositions without forms, narrative or depth. The total disappearance of the (hand of the) artist. Basically, as Alfred Barr, Jr., said, art had nothing to do with society, and Clement Greenberg annotated that painting had nothing to do with representation. What’s the conclusion? Socially and politically engaged figurative painting is totally taboo and must be avoided by all means.

This is precisely what I call the “iconoclastic unconscious”: a profound and embedded Anglo-Saxon iconophobia and fear of the image about which even most professionals in the art world are hardly aware. The censorship of Schutz is also a severe warning against future practitioners of politically engaged painting.

So the question is: Is there any difference between Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and his ordered destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 and artist Hannah Black, who demands Schutz’s painting be destroyed?

I think both are equally iconoclastic acts.

Paco Barragán is the visual arts curator of Centro Cultural Matucana 100 in Santiago, Chile. He recently curated “Intimate Strangers: Politics as Celebrity, Celebrity as Politics” and “Alfredo Jaar: May 1, 2011″ (Matucana 100, 2015), “Guided Tour: Artist, Museum, Spectator” (MUSAC, Leon, Spain, 2015) and “Erwin Olaf: The Empire of Illusion” (MACRO, Rosario, Argentina, 2015). He is author of The Art to Come (Subastas Siglo XXI, 2002) and The Art Fair Age (CHARTA, 2008).

Tags: , , , , ,

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.