Open Casket

Sarah Schulman, New York City
April 12, 2017

Controversy engulfed the Whitney Biennial recently over the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket”, an abstract painting that depicts the violently mutilated body of Emmett Till who was murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 after he was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant.

On April 10, 2017 the Whitney hosted a debate titled “Perspectives on Race and Representation.” They partnered with Claudia Rankine and the Racial Imaginary Institute to convene a conversation with artists, scholars, and critics to gain their insights into these issues in relation to the 2017 Biennial and our contemporary moment. The debate considered questions of the ethics of representation and the responsibilities of artists and museums. Contributors included Elizabeth Alexander, Christopher Benson, LeRonn P. Brooks, Ken Chen, Malik Gaines, Lyle Ashton Harris, Terrance Hayes, Ajay Kurian, Christopher Y. Lew, Casey Llewellyn, Mia Locks, Claudia Rankine, Sarah Schulman, Christina Sharpe, and Herb Tam, among others. 

What follows is the complete transcript of Sarah Schulman’s contribution to the debate. In offering the text to ArtsEverywhere for publication, Schulman noted that LitHub declined to publish the text after she refused to delete the concluding paragraph regarding the Palestinian Solidarity Movement.


Whitney Museum—April 10, 2017

White women have to face Emmett Till because we were the excuse for his destruction. Moving beyond the easy experiences of what Christina Sharpe calls “empathy, shame, and awareness,” we have to do the work to reverse our historic role as perpetrators, and fulfill the implications for action that come from that recognition. White women have to face Emmett Till because 53% percent of us voted for Donald Trump. From the two homeless white sex workers in Scottsboro, Alabama who made false rape charges against nine young Black men in 1931, to the six and half million Christian women who voted for the Nazi Party in 1933, to those French women about to vote for the National Front, White women have to face Emmett Till.

Most white women who have significant ruling power in our moment are dynastic. Even our most qualified and emblematic leaders, Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, were wives. Finding white female figures at the apex of power who are not dependent on white men for their access often elude us. Perhaps this is why married white women and unmarried white women vote so differently. The most progressive voting blocks in the American electorate are Blacks, Jews, and Unmarried women. Unmarried white women voted 72% for Clinton. It is the identification with the White Race through law and reproduction that seems to trend white women—who now earn 82 cents on the white man’s dollar—towards handing power to those who will force us into motherhood for which there is no support, destroy our right to organized labor, keep us from health care, and under-educate us while attacking people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and others in our name and with our help.

What we are facing is a white group identification based on race that is facilitated by a concept of White Family as the primary center of legitimization. For this reason, many white working class people whose jobs have been globalized out of existence are unable to place responsibility on the White one percent, and instead, are propelled by racism to project their anxieties and blame onto Immigrants and people of color who bear no responsibility for their pain. We are subjected, constantly to the greatest Fake News of all, the claim of White Supremacy. So white women must face Emmett Till.

In fact, in our time, every level of discourse is dominated by False information that dehumanizes and destroys lives. Right now we all fear The Supreme Court, but in one earlier incarnation they ruled that yelling “Fire” when you know there is no fire, is not protected speech. The concept of “Freedom of Speech” does not protect deliberately spreading false information in a conscious effort to gain power. “Freedom of Speech” protects opinion. These two concepts have become falsely fused in the public mind, which confuses our conversation of what is and what should be “Free.” We see a new generation for whom the words “Freedom of Speech” is a signifier, not for breadth, opinion, and change, but for Fake News, White Supremacy, and Status Quo.

We are subjected, constantly to the greatest Fake News of all, the claim of White Supremacy. So white women must face Emmett Till.

And so, rather than dividing the right to opinion from the deliberate spreading of lies, their experience insists on the two being conflated.  We see this conflation dramatically in what we used to call “Elite” Universities, but I think we need to call them now, more honestly, the Corporate Universities. We increasingly see white students focusing their political activism on the action of stopping Fascists from speaking, and this has extended to stopping people who are not Fascists from speaking. Going from campus to campus this year, I saw very little coherent large-scale, strategic student organizing against The New Regime and our National Calamity. We need to focus on our Vision of what we Do Want, Our Goals and Principles—which need to be in place to determine positive strategies. Instead there is a reactive impulse to stop others from speaking—which, in practical terms, has never been a successful strategy for progressive change. One of the fundamental principles for successful strategic organizing is: If a strategy has not worked before, do not do it again.

For Black students on Corporate Campuses, this same approach is manifesting with a different impulse. For the last fifty years, as a consequence of unending Black struggle, more Black students have graduated from Corporate universities.  Their experiences, networks, credentials, mentors, access, and success have been at a great emotional cost, simultaneously being told that acceptance is happening, while being faced instead with round-the-clock racism, as well as a cloying, whining, white do-gooderness demanding Black attention. And yet as these men and women run these gauntlets and gain influence and tools for power, the universities still treat them like outliers. They are not reflected in the souls of these corporations, and they are reminded of this constantly. As the numbers have grown, the rage has grown. Examples from Georgetown University’s offering of free tuition to descendants of its slaves, to Yale University’s inability to retain Black faculty, to blackface at fraternity Halloween parties, to invitations to Charles Murray, and more and more and more become more and more absurd to Black alumnae and students. The level of outrage and resistance is also a reflection of identification, even if it is a negative identification with the universities’ brand. The empowerment to insist that this stop—the empowerment to expect to be heard—this demand is not an outsider critique, it is an insider critique, an insistence on being treated like the powerful insider that people have been falsely promised to be.

We see a new generation for whom the words “Freedom of Speech” is a signifier, not for breadth, opinion, and change, but for Fake News, White Supremacy, and Status Quo.

And so it is with the criticism of “Open Casket.” The Whitney, after all, is a corporate Museum. The most common names on its walls are JP Morgan and Tiffany’s. Looking at the signatories on the letter demanding the destruction of the painting, some are outsiders: educated in the public sector, making art with no institutional support. But many are products of the same system that produces the Biennial itself—signatories who are affiliated with Ivy League schools, The New Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and have graduated from The Whitney Program. This is an expression of rage that comes from within the Corporation, coming from an experience where the call for “Free Speech” is not to protect opinion, but instead is regularly manipulated and used as a trick to hide the deliberate power grabs of White Supremacy.  This reminds us that Corporate Universities and Corporate Museums have never been places of Free Speech. They have always curtailed opinion—because they are the private sector, indebted to corporate agreement. Hence, we cannot have protests at Lincoln Center because it is funded by the Koch Brothers. Indeed, on some very deep level, in order to be a successful—and I mean a really successful—artist in America today, one has to be in some significant way palatable to the private sector. Given the grotesquerie of our society at this moment, it would behoove all of us to look at every piece that succeeds, and every artist who is rewarded and ask: Why? Why does this work make the Corporation that rewards it comfortable enough? What does this person who is so rewarded have that renders their own message acceptable? What does this successful work actually mean, what does it stand for, what does it value?

In this context, and rooted in this experience, there are some people who want to stop the expression of opinion that they find objectifying and destructively repetitious, and to stop the use of images of Black destruction as entertainment. How documentation, and its expression through both realism and abstraction, recreates pain, while making domination thrilling or normalized to others, is something this protest has succeeded in pushing all of us to try harder to responsibly understand. In a show that is orderly, “Open Casket” has been singled out by some as the one work that fails, and sometimes when an artwork fails it is because it represents an idea that is larger than what is possible, either for that artist, or for the community. This rift has produced a discourse of extremes, a surfacing of perspectives, and an engagement of content that is perhaps more successful than the show itself, or that, in fact, renders the show a success.

The fact that so many of us disagree with the value of destroying paintings, makes—in a way—that  expression the most important aspect of Free Speech to defend, because it exposes what we all need to grapple with: the responsibilities of White Women, the broadening Black Insider demand on Corporations, and the difference between the protection of opinion, and the protection of the deliberate spreading of false information to gain power.

I want to end by acknowledging one significant progressive community that is not confused about Free Speech, and that is the Palestine Solidarity Movement. There is an internationally coordinated campaign to claim that criticism of the Israeli government is inherently anti-Semitic and therefore qualifies as “Hate Speech”—thereby counting on the dismantling of the collective support for “Free Speech” to silence The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. Using this logic, Fordham University, here in New York, has just forbidden Students for Justice in Palestine from forming a chapter on their campus—claiming that being for Palestinian liberation is “hate speech” and should be destroyed. If we allow our confusions about Corporate and Public Opinion and Fake News to destroy our demand for open expression, the Palestine Solidarity Movement will be our next casualty. The people who ultimately suffer from the repression of painful Opinion are not the elite but, in fact, the powerless.

Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman's most recent books are the novel THE COSMOPOLITANS, selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the 20 best novels of 2016, and CONFLICT IS NOT ABUSE: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and The Duty of Repair. She is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island.

25 thoughts on “Open Casket

  1. This article is very hypocritical and the writer completely lacks any sort of self awareness. It seems Schulman wishes those who strive for success or happiness failure in their endeavors as everything is distilled down to support for so called White Supremacy. Schulman is a leader of JVP which recently hosted, honored and celebrated a terrorist convicted of killing innocents. It seems Schulman is full of shit.

    1. She also misunderstands the notion of free speech as it exists in the United States Constitution. Free speech is free of government interference and suppression. That’s all.

    2. Quite the contrary, the piece asks us all to look carefully at our complicity. Something that is very difficult and uncomfortable for all of us, as you so eloquently demonstrate.

    3. That seems like a knee jerk reaction to the article. I read Schulman as arguing that art can create important confrontations and illuminate a viewer’s complicity within complex systems of oppression. She highlights how uncensored free speech (and by extension, contentious art) is fraught but critical for an open society and coalition building on the Left.

    4. ” terrorist convicted of killing innocents”
      USA/UK rulers have a long history of giving safe heaven to Nazis, Ukrainian and other Eastern European Nazis, Latin America death squad murderers and Wahhabi “rebels”. Not mentioning USA backing Zionist colonizers of Palestine – mass-murderers, ethnic cleanser, torturers and land robbers.

  2. People may be interested to know that this morning Thursday April 13) Adam Fitzgerald got fired from Features at LitHub for trying to defend the Palestine content of this piece from censorship.

  3. @Andrew: It is too bad that instead of addressing the points made in the essay printed here you resort to name-calling, bullying, and profanity. Sarah Schulman is a philosopher who understands contradiction, nuance and subtlety. It appears that you do not.

  4. Second update: LitHub is a subsidiary of Grove/Atlantic, Grove was founded to publish banned books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Jean Genet. When Grove was made aware of these event, they reinstated Adam back at his job at LitHub. Thanks to everyone for the support and pressure.

  5. I am not sure what success is, but surely one might feel a measure of success if a recognition of and struggle against white supremacy into which we are all bound in this world at this time, though especially white folks, is attempted in one’s art, research, work or commentary.

    Very good article here.

  6. I can tell you why an editor didn’t want to publish this last paragraph. Because this this sentence is anti-Semitic: “There is an internationally coordinated campaign to claim that criticism of the Israeli government is inherently anti-Semitic and therefore qualifies as “Hate Speech”—thereby counting on the dismantling of the collective support for “Free Speech” to silence The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.” It’s not anti-Semtic to criticize the Israeli government, but it is anti-Semitic to claim a world-wide Jewish conspiracy /campaign to undermine legitimate criticism of Israel. This sentence is code for one of the most entrenched anti-Semitic tropes– powerful Jewish force working to undermine the common good. The sentence is also anti-Semitic because it is untrue. Some Jewish organizations might want to advocate that certain types of discourse about Israel is anti-Semitic– comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, for example, or claiming that Israel is engaged in genocide– but this is a far cry from claiming that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

      1. Fact: No college or university in the United States has hate speech codes claiming that criticism of the Israeli government is inherently anti-Semitic. Alternative Fact: “There is an internationally coordinated campaign to claim that criticism of the Israeli government is inherently anti-Semitic and therefore qualifies as “Hate Speech”—thereby counting on the dismantling of the collective support for “Free Speech” to silence The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.”

        1. Adam, are you really going to claim that the proof of your argument rests on “hate speech codes” or other forms of official policy in government or other institutions. That’s being a bit disingenuous isn’t it?

          1. Not one American university has a hate speech codes claiming that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. What’s confusing or disingenuous?

  7. Constitutional protection of free speech does not include crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Complicity is a two-edged sword in that “the status quo” is the theater itself, and the audience changes with each show.

  8. if voting for Killary is “progressive”, I am afraid that USA has not a very bright future.
    By the way, Killary also is a very keen Zionist and backer of Zionist colonization of Palestine.
    So, such position of the author makes me a bit confused about her attitude towards Palestinians’ rights.

  9. Lots of good stuff here Sarah -and then some essentialist notions that fail to address the complexity and nuance of this painting / the university system / white hackademic corporate footprint (which I love that you so pointedly bring up -how tied into existing museum culture it is) -first as Lidia mentions -Hillary is anything but a progressive –as the father to a half Palestinian daughter -and as someone who is an activist -Hillary is arguably THE WORST American politician when it comes to the Palestinians -substitute brown for black -former Alabama Governor racist segregationist George Wallace could easily have delivered the AIPAC speech Hillary gave in 2016 in Selma -circa 1965……

    My big problem with the whole Hannah Black thing -is how white bread corporate generia -she is an an artist (art student video -and neo dada objects backed by lots of text -and of course she is a marxist that goes without saying) -as she so aptly demonstrates the MFA is the new MBA -nothing less than an opportunistic career move, a hostile takeover …

    I’d love to hear you write more about the continued viability of the country club museum structure as it now exists/ and perhaps considering that AMERICAS MAJOR CULTURAL CONTRIBUTION TO THE WORLD HAS BEEN BLACK MUSIC IN ALL OF ITS FORMS -NOT COMING FROM THE UNIVERSITY SYSTEM……how is the corporate african american artist -(Theaster Gates etc -Hannah Black) to be viewed societally when compared to say Charlie Parker -Ella Fitzgerald -Duke Ellington -Monk……I could go on for hours…art forms that existed very much outside of the corporate structure -and is this corporatization in anyway a good thing?

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