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Presently, individuals can witness the clear product of the centrifugal forces surrounding the 1960s, as it pertains to the discourse of race. The destabilizing framework within the 60s deconstructed the 1950s American Dream which idealized heteronormativity, patriarchy, suburbia, middle-class, and the caucasian race. Ultimately, the 60s was a dynamic decade of protests consisting of marginalized communities that sought the acknowledgment of non-normative discourses within society. For instance, the presence of progressive events such as the election of John F. Kennedy, the Great March in Washington, and witnesses of the Stonewall riots, created a monumental wave of optimism igniting the proliferation of discourses. Notably, the art produced in the 1960s became more politically engaged since these historical aspects allowed visuals to reveal significant messages and spark thought-provoking discourse. Robert Rauschenberg speaks to the 1960s awareness of historical context within his politically and socially charged silk-screened canvas entitled Retroactive I (1964) (FIG 1).

Although conflicted with using the image of JFK after his assassination, Rauschenberg wanted to pay homage to and memorialize the president he most admired (MoMa, Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends). With that being said, many people have taken offense to Dana Schultz’s tribute piece, Open Casket (2016), calling it a “Black Death Spectacle” display at the Whitney Museum of American Art (Greenberger, ‘The Painting Must Go’: Hannah Black Pens Open Letter to the Whitney About Controversial Biennial Work). Standing out from all the prominent voices of outrage around this piece, is writer and artist, Hannah Black, calling for the destruction of Schultz’s work in her open letter, The Painting Must Go (Ibid). Black’s position is that the artwork is inherently rooted in undertones of appropriation since its composition was created at the hands of an individual of caucasian descent who cannot fathom the authentic black experience (Ibid). Similar to how Rauschenberg’s painting memorializes the death of Kennedy, Schultz’s work honors the death of an African American teenager named Emmett Till, who was wrongfully lynched. Both artworks wrestle with new political discourses and realities of their time in which activism created a reimagined dream. Ultimately through understanding the Schultz controversy, individuals can process the dynamic codings of the 60s and its effects on the present.

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Part of Black’s open letter to the Whitney Museum involves the issue of painterly style in Open Casket, considering the application of paint as an irresponsible treatment of the subjectivity of Emmett Till (El-Sheikh, Sous les paves, la plage). Many art critics that support Black’s position consider the painterly image as a logical application rooted in Western Modern paintings, typical of artists exploring the benefits of white privilege. Furthermore, art historian, George Baker wrote, “But naiveté edges into something much more sinister here, as the work collapses the destruction of Till’s body and face, his murder, with the artist’s aesthetic” (George Baker on Painting, Critique, and Empathy in the Emmett Till / Whitney Biennial Debate). However, according to Clement Greenberg’s essay, ‘Modernist Painting,’ he emphasizes color, the abstraction of purity, and non-representation (775,776). Modernism’s idealism of ambiguity and lack of “content” is contrary to Schultz’s execution of Open Casket since she is capturing the brutality of Till’s murder rather than an aesthetic experience. A personal argument to be made is that it is not Schultz’s aesthetic that is being criticized but rather her ‘mark’ as an artist depicting a different subjectivity other than her own. Schultz notes the atrocity of Till’s murder as distorted, maimed, and a travesty. Furthermore, Till’s features are exaggerated not from a place of playfulness but rather an exaggeration of his subject position in America. The painting is symbolic and its textured strokes are cryptic of a racial political discourse rather than a Modernist Painting discourse that relies on quality through flatness (Greenberg 777). Some may also argue that Contemporary African artists such as Chris Ofili’s paintings are sacrilegious since they utilize visual playfulness to communicate multiple viewpoints that compromise black culture and its history (Crooks, Contemporary African Art). Assuredly, Schultz’s work is not “playful” when one considers the works of Yinka Shonibare and El Ansui, whose playful representations of complexities of nationalism, post-colonialism, and ethnicity are at the forefront of racial discourses (Ibid). Critics praise these artists for their “playfulness” by illustrating African peoples’ hardships and the ability to resonate with audiences. For this reason, Black cannot insinuate that Schultz’s work is racist or inadvertently a form of oppression and censorship.

Apart from the fact that Schulz’s work does not display or feed into ignorant stereotypes of black people, she recognizes and deconstructs her white privilege through the acknowledgment of America’s dark history of racism. Open Casket is notably a self-reflective painting that cites a racist historical murder and the lack of institutional resources available to people of color. Black claims that “The subject matter is not Schutz’s…. [It’s] white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights” (Greenberger, ‘The Painting Must Go’: Hannah Black Pens Open Letter to the Whitney About Controversial Biennial Work). Interestingly, many critics leave out the narrative that Schultz, a woman, is also part of a marginalized community. Black criticizes the mobility of “white creativity” within art institutions, however, many white women in art history are excluded from this narrative. In actuality, women, along with other marginalized communities, have less social mobility within a world dominated by the ideal construct of hegemonic masculinity perpetuated by the 50s. Rauschenberg’s subjectivity as a prominent white male artist and his usage of a white male leader as a central figure in his work further illustrate the constraints of both race and gender. However, the shifting power dynamics between Richard Nixon’s conservative and Kennedy’s democratic administration, draw reference to the changing politics and the multiplicity of discourses arising in the 60s. For Rauschenberg, the homage to cultural symbols and images in his painting reveals his personal and cultural memory of change in the 60s. The human rights movement had come at a crucial time when truths were widening, social realities were imploding, and cultural boundaries were proliferating. As Schultz has communicated in past interviews, it was her position and identity as an empathetic mother that allowed her to relate to Till’s mother’s position as she overlooked the casket of her dead son (Basciano, “Whitney Biennial: Emmett Till Casket Painting by White Artist Sparks Anger”). Black and other critics fail to rationalize that artworks allow viewers to humanize situations that they do not necessarily identify with. As Greenberg explains, “The immediate aims of Modernist artists remain individual before anything else, and the truth and success of their work is individual before it is anything else” (778). Although one might think Black’s open letter is standing up for black people’s suffering, many feel that her message is hurting the cause and distorting Schultz’s reflection on Till’s murder. Limiting the number of people and races that are allowed to show concern for an event only hurts the message of equality through the implementation of divisions of what artists can or cannot inherently portray. In Retrospective I, this ‘fear’ is illustrated through the reassurance of Kennedy’s presence that operates as a reminder to uphold America’s mission to achieve equality even after his assassination. For instance, the gloomy mushroom-shaped clouds appear to be floating above the pointing president which is a clear reference to the ongoing Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, all situations that indicated an uncertain future. Similarly, Schultz’s piece resonates with an audience that disrupts their unconscious/conscious interpretations of a stereotypical “violent black adult male” through the confronting image of Till resting in a casket. Truly, art and empathy are not exclusive to the boundaries of race and the American ancestral pain transcending generations. Moreover, the argument that Schultz created Open Casket for “fun and profit” is fallacious and misleading since it liberates “from norms of practice or taste” (Greenberger, ‘The Painting Must Go’: Hannah Black Pens Open Letter to the Whitney About Controversial Biennial Work) (Greenberg 779). Even many of Schultz’s critics praise her for her courage, however, they criticize the representation of a serious dialogue of racism which sets a standard for artists to only use subjects of their racial likeness. Schultz and Rauschenberg’s work exclusively involves a cultural memory of historical trauma as they relate to these events on a personal level through the times.

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