UPDATE (11:30 AM EST): The Whitney Museum has officially confirmed that this letter from Dana Schutz is fake, and does not have any information about its origin. The letter, which began circulating throughout the media this morning was sent from two emails—[email protected] and [email protected]—and opened with the statement, "I am sending you this letter as your publication recently covered a protest of my painting Open Casket, included in this year’s Whitney Biennial. I hope you will consider presenting this statement I have written to the show curators as a followup to those pieces." We regret the error.
After a group of black artists, writers and activists have been protesting Dana Schutz's work at the Whitney Biennial all week, the artist has officially asked the curators to remove her painting of Emmett Till's open casket. The work, which depicts the black 14-year-old's funeral after being murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman, has been labeled a "Black Death Spectacle," considering Schutz herself is a white artist.
In an open letter to Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, Schutz said her depiction of suffering has in turn caused black activists suffering, and because of this, she cannot "rightly protect a painting at the expense of human beings." Though some have attempted to defend her work using free speech and censorship as their core argument, Schutz said the activists have "made plain to me that I have benefited from the very systems of racism I aimed to critique, in a way that blinded me to what my re-presenting this image would mean to black audiences."
Schutz continued, critiquing the Biennial curators' statement, which suggested that art can be an appropriate venue for political expression and debate. While the artist agreed with this sentiment, she disagreed with their implication that black pain, which the curators referred to as a "tremendous emotional resonance," should be explored through art—"at least, not within a historically white-run institution, at the hands of a white artist, in an exhibit organized by a predominantly non-black staff," Schutz said.
Through painting Emmett Till, the artist said she wanted to examine empathy between herself and Till's mother, who requested an open casket at his funeral to show the public what they did to her son. However, she said she "learned that my re-presentation of violence against her son has proven to demonstrate its opposite: appealing to the universal truth of motherhood goes against what I have learned about the denial of motherhood, and of humanity itself, on the basis of race."
Schutz closed her letter by joining with the activists who protested her work and "calling for the immediate removal of Open Casket." She also promised the painting will never be for sale and ensured it will never enter the public sphere again. All sales made off her other paintings in the Biennial will go towards the Black liberation movement, Schutz added. "Finally, out of continued respect for those harmed by the work, I ask that the catalog and the press in the future and retroactively remove all images of the work from circulation, and replace it with images of the work’s subsequent protest," she said.