Thursday, 23 March 2017

Burning art - the latest Progressive initiative

I'm one of those people whose response to art is to say 'I know what I like' so don't take what follows as a piece of art criticism.

The painting in question is called 'Open Casket' and is by an artist called Dana Schutz. Here's one review:
The painting is based on a photograph of African American Emmett Till, laid in a coffin. The 14 year old young man was brutally murdered in 1955 for flirting with a white woman, his face horrifically disfigured in process. Earlier this year, it came out that the accuser, Carolyn Bryant, had lied and made the story up. The painting in question is a marvel to look at and currently on view at the Whitney Biennial. Schutz layers and builds paint in such a way that it appears economical even though she’s literally built a swollen lip out of paint.
So far, so good - and ever so right on. The problem is that Dana Schutz is white and, therefore, “It’s not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,”. As a result the author of that line has decided to go beyond mere criticism and to call for the painting's destruction:
UK-born, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black has launched a campaign demanding the Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket from the show, and calling for its destruction.
In a long and angst-ridden letter Ms Black explains that the terrible imagery in the painting - 'black pain' she calls it - might, in the event of the painting's sale, result in profit. Meaning that white people will have gained from the exploitation of that pain. And, moreover, that the artist should know better than to continue to use such expropriation. Dozens of fellow artists have lined up behind Ms Black in saying that the Whitney Gallery should remove and destroy the painting - though Ms Black has only allowed black artists to sign the letter.

It seems to me that, whatever the merits of the painting (and everyone, even Ms Black, seem to think is is powerful and well-executed) the idea that we destroy art because we don't like its message, its image or its artist simply takes these Progressive voices into the same world as the book burners of 1930s Germany or the Catholic Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Ms Black and others may see their cause as righteous but then so did those who, back in 1989, tried to ban Robert Mapplethorpe's "The Perfect Moment" exhibition because it featured explicit gay sex. Or a thousand other examples of censorship by the state and other authorities - on grounds of taste, religion and the ethnicity of the artist.

It's fair to say that our Progressives are a bit mixed up over this:
Prior to that conversation, if you’d asked me if I thought it was a good idea for white artists to refrain from rendering certain racially charged subjects, I would have responded with a rant about how all this debate would lead only to white artists depicting black subjects less frequently. I’m not sure that position would have been wrong, but I’d now add the caveat that some subjects might be worth leaving alone. I write this knowing this road has “slippery slope” written all over it. After all, I’ve now written about this painting. Am I now profiting off black suffering too? I don’t think so, but then again it’s in my interest to think that.
Confusing eh? For my part I suspect that the politicised hypersensitivity of the black artists seeking the painting's destruction serves the cause of art badly and the idea of liberty not at all. Such actions merely reinforce the idea that offence and sensitivity must be policed, the very same idea that led to literature, music and art being suppressed by public censorship for its portrayal of women, gay men and sexual liberty. This is why - despite the arts world describing itself as such - I have called the protagonists here Progressives rather than liberals. Suggesting it is liberal to want a painting destroyed simply because the artist is white is the very opposite of of artistic freedom. Indeed it is little different to the idea, from another bunch of modernist illiberals, of degenerate art.


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