In recent years, cultural and intellectual discourse on race has remained in the forefront of discussion in the United States. With modern political civil rights movements, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, gaining huge social momentum, the popularity of social practice necessitates integration into the art world. Many contemporary artists attempt to create art that fits in our culturally diverse and multifaceted environment by creating art considered “challenging” or “interesting.” To create dialogue and to align with current social focuses, many contemporary artists respond to instances of police brutality, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia through their creative practices. Recent art centered around systemic racism has predominantly featured instances of pain and trauma for African Americans in the United States. The question remains, though, is the political shift of popular contemporary art responding to issues surrounding race a true catalyst for social change, or merely a spectacle to be profited from?
The art world continues to be white-dominated, by white artists, white subjects, and white curators. African American artists are habitually underrepresented in the mainstream art world. Due to this tendency, a segment of the racially challenging pieces of artwork created are by white artists. The interpretation of race and power has historically been defined by a white hegemonic standpoint, and thus this artistic appropriation sparks immense controversy over insensitive attempts at social relevancy.
Featured in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial show, Dana Schutz created a particularly evocative painting, Open Casket (2016), of an open-coffin with a distorted black male’s face. The painting is based on the photograph of Emmett Till’s funeral. Till, an African American boy who was brutally murdered at the age of 14, was falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. To force people to see the brutality of the lynching and to expose American racism, Till’s mother chose to have an open casket at the funeral. The issue of the portrayal in the eyes of many was the artist herself, a white woman. In protest of Schutz’s appropriative artistic lens, one African American artist stood in front of the work wearing a shirt with the words “Black Death Spectacle.” The majority of naysayers emphasized the fundamentally white supremacist nature of contemporary art, and the obvious unfairness of stripping art from those being depicted. In North Carolina, even, in Raleigh’s modern art museum, a show in 2016 chose to feature an exhibit of Margaret Bowland’s large portraits of African American subjects smeared with white paint. This collection, produced by a white artist, was met with distain in the arts community with accusations of cultural appropriation, as well.
Art can help to make sense of reality and force onlookers to consider the visual more acutely. While acknowledging racial construction as a reality allows art to impact racial identity in the United States and challenge institutions, the exclusion of African Americans in the art industry disrupt appropriate representation and distract from potentially impactful art. Until the art world itself becomes a truly inclusive institution, the practice will struggle to make true social change. Though, despite unsettling images depicting African American suffering creating waves, the images certainly demonstrate the power of art to speak about race and violence.
“Black Bodies, White Cubes: The Problem With Contemporary Art's Appropriation of Race -.” ARTnews, 11 July 2016, www.artnews.com/2016/07/11/black-bodies-white-cubes-the-problem-with-contemporary-arts-appropriation-of-race/.
Menconi, David. “Critics Offended by Portraits of Black People Painted with White Faces. Artist Says They're Missing the Point.” Newsobserver, News & Observer, www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article209130184.html.
Kennedy, Randy. “White Artist's Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Mar. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/arts/design/painting-of-emmett-till-at-whitney-biennial-draws-protests.html.
Muñoz-Alonso, Lorena. “Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Sparks Protest.” Artnet News, Artnet News, 23 Mar. 2017, news.artnet.com/art-world/dana-schutz-painting-emmett-till-whitney-biennial-protest-897929.