Why do white liberal artists love Black death so much?
By Hari Ziyad
March 22, 2017
“I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” – Mamie Till, mother of Emmett Till, on her decision to put her son’s mutilated body on plain view during his open-casket funeral. Till was only 14-year-old years old when he was lynched and deformed beyond recognition in 1955 after being falsely accused of harassing a white woman.
At this year’s Whitney Biennial in New York, a painting titled “Open Casket” depicting Till’s body by Dana Schutz, a white, female artist, has incensed museum-goers. Schutz’s work falls in a long line of seemingly well-meaning white artists displaying moments of Black pain, suffering and death as statement pieces. Last year, an artwork by Ti-Rock Moore–also a white woman–depicting a lifeless Mike Brown surrounded by police tape and traffic cones erupted similar controversy when it was exhibited at Gallery Guichard in Bronzeville. “She sees herself as an activist and instead of standing on the picket line, she’s creating beautiful, conceptual pieces that get her message across,” gallery owner Andre Guichard told The Chicago Tribune in defense of Moore at the time.
By Hari Ziyad*, AFROPUNK Contributor
By this point, I am beyond believing that these artists have no idea of what they are doing, so I will concede to Guichard that these Black suffering conceptual pieces by white artists get across their intended message. It is this message–that Black deaths don’t matter any more than Black lives–which has been received and resisted by Black critics and audiences who have (perhaps too) graciously outlined the problem with these pieces time and time again. I no longer accept that white liberals who traffic in Black pain do not understand the difference between their actions and Mamie Till’s, despite claims to be doing a similar type of activist work of preventing the world from forgetting its anti-Black crimes. They are the world, and they have already forgotten to implicate themselves.
“I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby” is often read as though “they” is a faulty pronoun that does not refer its antecedent, “the world,” and instead only to the white men who personally lynched Emmett. But it was white society that let his murderers off the hook and those belonging to it were therefore willful co-conspirators in the barbaric act. “The world” is the perpetrator of the violence Black people have been bearing since even before being stolen and shackled, and this is the same world Shutz and Moore belong to.
A white artist “showing the world” Black suffering in an artistic statement would necessitate a look in the mirror, not at the Black bodies on the ground. It would show Schutz and Moore over the bodies of Till and Brown, holding the gun and barbed wire. Mamie’s statement was so powerful because Emmett was her baby. She chose Black media specifically to reprint the images. But under the hand of the likes of Schutz and Moore, Black death becomes less a call to awareness, more a titillating spectacle, using non-Black media and galleries to recreate images of it with no regard to the fact that they were once lives–once loved. Einstein once famously said “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” This type of work does nothing but encourage more looking and nothing–more danger for Black people.
By now it should be clear that these type of well-meaning artists don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. What they are doing with capitalizing Black death and turning them into their activist statements can be easily understood as fraudulent when the shoe is placed on the other foot. As writer Robert Jones Jr. states, “I want a black artist to start painting graphic scenes of real-life mutilation, dehumanization, murder, and disrespect of white people to profit from. Paint Jon Benet Ramsey’s murder scene, for example, with all sorts of horrible disrespectful depictions and violations of her. Let’s see which galleries will tout them and pay the artist mounds of money and say it’s all about “The Art!”™. Let’s see if all these freedoms work in both directions.” We all know the answer to this.
It’s always tempting to give some leeway when it seems white liberals are at least acknowledging racism exists. How could someone so seemingly sincere about caring about Black issues do something so horribly offensive on purpose? But what needs to finally be recognized is that anti-Blackness is not and has never been intended to simply offend, cannot be fixed by sadistic acknowledgment alone, and is not disproven by showing attention to Black people. Anti-Blackness is a centuries old practice that has always been meant to keep in place a system in which Black people aren’t seen as human so that others can attain their humanity. It’s time to accept that white liberals like Schutz and Moore place the disregard of Black people front and center not in a misguided attempt to challenge this dehumanization, but to reinforce the regard–and money (let’s not ignore how the spectacles of Black death they appropriate are always only the popular ones)–they receive in their own life, whether they “care about” Black people or not.
*Hari Ziyad is a New York based storyteller and writer for AFROPUNK. They are also the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, deputy editor of Black Youth Project, and assistant editor of Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can follow them on Twitter @hariziyad.