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Dana Schutz Defends Emmett Till Painting: 'I Feel Somehow That It's an American Image'

Alina Heineke
Alina Heineke/AP

The controversial artist discusses her work in a New Yorker profile. 

After a fake letter from Dana Schutz circulated online last month in response to the Whitney Biennial protests, the controversial Open Casket painter has opened up about her work in a New Yorker profile--you know, as a white artist depicting black pain gets the privileged opportunity to.

When asked to explain her reason for creating the image, which reimagines a photo of 14-year-old Emmett Till's funeral, Schutz said "I was interested because it's something that keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it's an American image."

She also expressed her hesitance in painting Open Casket, though the interview seems to have been completed months before the Whitney Biennial opened: "There was so much uncertainty with this painting," Schutz said. "You think maybe it's off limits, and then extra off limits. But I really feel any subject is O.K., it's just how it's done. You never know how something is going to be until it's done."

Still, Schutz said she "knew the risks going into this," though the New Yorker points out that Open Casket saw no controversy when it was displayed in Berlin. "What I didn't realize was how bad it would look when seen out of context," the artist said. "Is it better to try to make something that's impossible, because it's important to you, and to fail, or never to engage with it at all? I just couldn't do it any other way."

Despite protestors physically blocking the painting from view at the Whitney Biennial and more than two dozen black artists signing a letter requesting the painting be removed, Schutz's Open Casket still remains on display--though a water leak this weekend may have temporarily worked in the protestors' favor.

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