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Essay

IN FALL OF 2016 I RETURNED TO THE CLASSROOM, filling in for a friend who was on sabbatical. The course was a seminar for art students, one that I had taught many times before I retired. My friend had used Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev as one of the texts, just as I always had. Asher Lev has long been a staple in Christian circles—and as I prepared I wondered if the conflicts that form its dramatic core aren’t a bit dated, since the art and ideas depicted in the book are drawn from mid-twentieth-century modern art. But it was a book students had enjoyed, and it had initiated good discussions about the place of faith in the life of young artists, so I kept it in the course.

As we were reading Potok’s book, the American author Lionel Shriver created an international controversy at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival in Australia. Her keynote address had been billed as a talk on “community and belonging,” but she spoke on “fiction and identity politics” instead. She delivered the keynote wearing a sombrero, a reference to an eruption at Bowdoin College, where some students wore small sombreros to a party featuring tequila. After complaints from a few Hispanic students, the administration began an investigation, and the student council threatened to impeach two council members who had attended the party. The council issued a statement that the party was offensive and called wearing the sombreros an “act of cultural appropriation.” Shriver said her point was that cultural appropriation is a necessary part of the writer’s tool kit. “Otherwise all I could write about would be smart-alecky, fifty-nine-year-old, five-foot, two-inch white women from North Carolina.”

Shriver has said her fictional characters are “hard to love.” The same might be said of her. Presumably the festival organizers knew she was a provocateur when they invited her, but they nonetheless quickly disavowed her address and convened a “right of reply” event before the festival closed. Clearly, donning a sombrero was an easy trick that invited offense. But it should be noted that such performances yield a kind of vulgar power. The speaker or artist gains the power that comes from attention: people talk, people debate, and people remember.

I had a small aha moment while reading about the uproar that followed Shriver’s talk. There is an act of appropriation at the heart of Asher Lev that I thought students might respond to personally. Shriver gave me a way to show that the conflicts and dilemmas depicted in a book written forty-six years ago can still provoke people today. So I used the Shriver controversy to open a discussion of Asher Lev’s appropriation of crucifixion imagery, which he used to depict his family’s pain and suffering. Asher describes Brooklyn Crucifixion II as showing his mother’s hands tied with venetian blind ties as she stands at a window in their apartment with her arms raised like Christ’s on the cross. Asher and his father, who were locked in a bitter conflict that dominated and divided their strict Hassidic household, stood on either side, looking at her and each other. Their poses recall John the Baptist and Mary on either side of the cross. Asher explains, “I created this painting—an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition….” It would not be too farfetched to suggest that Asher, who like Shriver is a difficult character, was seeking an image that would give power to his feelings. Of course, the uproar and alienation that follow the exhibition of Asher’s paintings was not within the arts community, but in Potok’s fictional Ladover Hassidic community.

The class discussion wasn’t memorable—the students didn’t react personally. Appropriation is an idea in both art history and contemporary art, and thus somewhat familiar to art students. In art history, discussions of an artist’s influences and antecedents are foundational to understanding his or her work’s unique character. Artists have crossed cultural lines for millennia, and images are a part of the baggage they carry when they move, as when Albrecht Dürer returned to Germany from Italy across the Alps with images of Italian Renaissance art fueling his ambitions. Then too, Asher’s appropriation didn’t touch a religiously sensitive nerve in my students. Even devout Christian students—at least the ones I’ve encountered—don’t tend to see Christian imagery in a proprietary sense, as theirs. And I don’t think they believe Christian imagery is in its essence something sacred. They have been mostly Protestant, and as art students are too aware of the raw materials and the labor from which images emerge. If anything, they might see the creative act itself as sacramental.

 

Appropriation as Cultural Criticism

Descriptions of appropriation often begin by acknowledging that the practice has deep roots in the arts. But the word took on specific critical connotations in western art during the last half of the twentieth century, as popular and commercial imagery flooded American and European culture. Thus artists like Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine, who literally re-present or re-produce the work of other people without much change or embellishment are seen to be commenting on the art and imagery of contemporary culture. Both artists are often described in terms of questioning the authorship and ownership of artistic imagery or addressing notions of authenticity and originality.

Prince, who has appropriated Marlboro Cigarettes’ cowboy pictures, a photo of a nude Brooke Shields at age twelve, images from a book on Rastafarians, and pictures from people’s Instagram accounts, has pushed the legal boundaries around fair use, copyright, and authorship. He has been sued several times, and in July of 2017 a federal judge allowed a suit brought by a photographer to go forward, saying he didn’t see much “transformation” in what Prince had done. An earlier suit brought by a different photographer was initially ruled in favor of the plaintiff but overturned on appeal. In that case, Prince and the photographer ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Using the courts to search for the line between mere copying and the transformation of an image into a legally defensible work of art seems like an expensive way to explore a philosophical question. But it does underscore something often overlooked about images. While they are not much like parcels of land, they are a kind of property and can be owned. Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst have all been sued for copyright infringement.

By contrast, Sherrie Levine’s work seems more deliberately pedestrian than Prince’s. She re-photographed pictures from books on great photographers, including Walker Evans and Edward Weston. The photographs are well crafted and ostensibly just like the original, but they aren’t, and for those who know Evans’s or Weston’s work, they become a sort of ontologically troubling ghost. Who’s the artist? Where’s the art? For the theoretically inclined, they raise a host of questions about the nature of images and the relationship of the image to its referent or source. The estate of Walker Evans was concerned about copyright infringement, but Levine responded by agreeing not to sell the pictures, and the estate ultimately acquired them. They are now in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection. The description of Levine’s work on the Met’s website explains that “Far from a high-concept cheap shot, Levine’s works from this series tell the story of our perpetually dashed hopes to create meaning, the inability to recapture the past, and our own lost illusions.” Similarly, an author on the International Center of Photography’s blog, Fans in a Flashbulb, wrote in 2013 that “Postmodernist photographers like Levine rejected the idea that photographs could offer us insight into reality. According to these photographers, authenticity has never existed, and all art—including photographs—never depict reality but only an idea of reality…. [Levine] suggests that pictures never reflect the authentic reality, but that composition, choice of subject, lighting, etc., are all determined by a cultural discourse that is owned by nobody.”

So Levine is one of the contemporary artists who has challenged and undermined the earlier modern preoccupation with originality and innovation. Surely her perch on a high branch of the contemporary canon critiques the young T.S. Eliot’s judgment that is often boiled down to “Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” The passage from his 1921 book The Sacred Wood is worth quoting in full:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

The quotations about Levine indicate that she and her colleagues have been credited with helping kill not only the old notions of originality prized by Eliot, but even the idea that artistry and its artifacts are a way to know reality—or really know. If we take the Flashbulb quote at face value, the only things we really know are our ideas about images, not what the images depict. Given this solipsism, how real is the idea that artists are trapped in a discourse without an author? How could we know? Maybe that is just an idea too?

If we go back in the history of photography, we find heated arguments about its status as art. Photography was often regarded as inferior, not really an art form, because it was thought to be insufficiently creative, a mere mechanical reproduction of what is plainly evident. That belief was buttressed by the idea of the “fine arts,” which excluded the crafts and “useful” arts like photography. Almost from its inception, photography was put in the service of recording ostensibly real people, events, and places. So, it is a little ironic that it was photographers—artists like Levine and her colleagues—who helped close the aperture into reality and its meanings that art was thought to offer us. They also helped eradicate meaningful distinctions between art and non-art, though such distinctions certainly persist, in art schools, galleries and museums, and as we have seen, copyright law. It is a little ironic, too, that the legal definition of the “fair use” of someone else’s pictures depends on the user’s originality, that is, on some visible evidence of the change and uniqueness inscribed in T.S. Eliot’s idea of mature poetry.

 

Thirty Years Later

Identity politics has been percolating through western culture for some time now. In the arts, the tone and language around identity has become increasingly acrimonious. A particularly intense debate recently occurred around Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, which appeared in the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York. The Biennial has had a history of controversy, and in recent years criticisms have focused on the number of women and minority artists chosen by the curators.

Schutz, a forty-two-year-old white woman who lives in Brooklyn, is regarded as a first-rate painter. Her work is sought by collectors. As the basis for Open Casket, Schutz used a photograph of Emmett Till, a black teenager brutally murdered in Mississippi by two white men in 1955. The killers claimed Till had made advances toward the young wife of one—though the woman, now eighty-three years old, recently admitted she fabricated much of the story. Till’s body was sent back to Chicago where he lived, and his mother insisted on an open casket. “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box,” she said. “No way. And I just wanted the world to see.” The funeral home was packed, and thousands of people crowded the streets outside. What people saw in the funeral home was a face so badly mutilated it was barely recognizable. Till’s murder marked a change in the nascent struggle for civil rights, and photographs of his body in the casket, first published in Jet magazine, became an icon for the movement.

Schutz is not an appropriationist in the “I’m questioning the nature of imagery” mode that Levine pioneered. The Till photograph was a source and springboard for a painting that is—in an almost old-fashioned way—a loose abstraction of a photograph, filled with her feelings about Till’s death and those more recent deaths of young black men like Trayvon Martin. She told New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins, “It’s a real event, and it’s violence. But it has to be tender, and also about how it’s been for his mother.” In a later conversation she asked, “How do you make a painting about this, and not have it just be about the grotesque? I was interested because it just keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it is an American image.”

At the Biennial’s opening, a young African American artist stood in front of the painting for several hours wearing a T-shirt with the phrase “Black Death Spectacle” on the back. Others joined him for parts of his vigil. His protest became much more visible and contentious when Hannah Black, an artist and writer working and living in London, Berlin, and New York, posted a letter to the Biennial’s two curators on Facebook. Ultimately it was co-signed by about fifty other artists, curators, and critics. She opened, “I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.” The entire letter is easy to find online, but the following excerpts form the core of its argument:

[T]he painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time…. Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture…. discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humor, and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded. I see no more important foundational consideration for art than this question, which otherwise dissolves into empty formalism or irony, into a pastime or a therapy. [italics added]

The Whitney kept the painting in the Biennial, but it added a wall text addressing the controversy, and the curators met with the artist who stood in protest at the opening. Schutz made a statement saying she would never sell the painting, and that her “engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother…. Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection.” However, the issue has followed Schutz since then. The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston opened an exhibit of her work in July of 2017, a show planned two years before. Her work is often frenetic, but it is not very issue-oriented, so it must have seemed unlikely to be problematic. Open Casket was not included in the exhibit. Nonetheless the ICA received a six-page open letter from artists and community activists asking that the exhibit be closed. “Please pull the show. This is not about censorship. This is about institutional accountability.”

The arguments against art like Open Casket are related to the claims of ownership artists or corporations use when they sue people for appropriating images. A right has been violated. But here the proprietary claim rests on the idea of rights for those who have been demeaned or harmed through appropriation or representation. These claims are moral, not legal, and the appeal is to public opinion, not the law. The appeals are often spread through social media, which tends to inflame and inflate claims, and is not the best arena for reasoned civil discourse.

Reactions to the controversy are not neatly divided by identity. Whoopi Goldberg rebuked Hannah Black in a segment on The View, saying, “If you’re an artist, young lady, you should be ashamed of yourself.” For Goldberg, as for many others, the history and specter of censorship hangs over the whole issue. The Cuban American performance artist, writer, and curator Coco Fusco wrote an extensive critique of Black’s letter, pointing out errors of fact and logic. Critical responses from people like Goldberg and Fusco argue that art needs freedom from social constraints, even if the results are disturbing or offensive. This is a belief woven into the DNA of modern and progressive art, and thus people who wish to remove art from public access are challenged to articulate criteria beyond the simple assertion that the representation of a particular identity group is offensive, or that the artist is untrustworthy because they don’t have the proper identity to deal with the subject. Nonetheless, claims of bias, offense, and privilege continue to be made, and for some they are simply reason enough.

What interested me about the Schutz incident and others like it was the change in the way artists, writers, and critics speak about imagery, even as the use of appropriation has continued. Whereas once there was an almost dogmatic doubt about the meaning and trustworthiness of images, today there is a passionate belief in their social agency—often with a concomitant judgment that artists have an obligation to make socially responsible art, which most often means making art that supports a cause. It struck me as a little ironic, too. What accounts for the changing explanations, priorities, and critical judgments about images? Why have proprietary discussions about images changed from legal questions to those of birthright? How do images become so powerful?

 

Public Spaces

In another sphere, culturally distant from the institutions of contemporary art, outcry over the power of images has been particularly vitriolic and sometimes violent. Public monuments and memorials dedicated to honoring Confederate soldiers and statesmen have been slated for removal by city governments in some states. Since they sit on public land, they are seen as government-sanctioned speech, and with the rise of racial tensions in and around Black Lives Matter and the election of Donald Trump, municipalities have begun to question whether the monuments should be kept. The city of New Orleans removed four statues in May of 2017. The companies contracted to remove them received threats, so some were removed at night by workers wearing flak jackets.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017, a young woman was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a group protesting a rally organized to challenge the proposed removal of an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee. For now the fate of the statue is unknown, as the issue is fought out in the courts. Those who would keep the Lee memorial—not all of whom are white supremacists—argue that the city doesn’t have the authority to remove it. The mayor had originally supported keeping the statue but adding contextual information about Lee, the war, and the Jim Crow era. After the deadly conflict in the streets, he came down in favor of removal.

Now, the bronze statue of Lee sits shrouded, awaiting its fate, fenced off behind orange construction netting and draped with a large black tarp. Given that Lee, his horse, and the stone pedestal total twenty-six feet in height, the dark fabric form has an architectural presence that evokes the wrapped works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Christo, who was born in Bulgaria, lived under the totalitarian Communist regime before fleeing westward in 1956. His early work drew on the government’s practice of covering old sheds, bales of hay, and broken farm machinery that flanked the tracks of the Orient Express, the train that ran through Bulgaria on its way between Istanbul and Paris. To sensitive young Bulgarians, the shrouded objects must have suggested the perfect image for political cover-up.

To eyes oriented to contemporary art, the Charlottesville Lee statue looks more like art now than it did when it was just another equestrian statue in a park serving as a pigeon roost, something to be circumnavigated without paying much attention—either to it or its place in the history of art. What the Lee statue shares with Open Casket is that the controversies taking place now are about images and imagery, not art. That is, it is not the conventions or definitions of art that are considered important, but the assumed social effects of the images on viewers.

 

Images, Identities, and Intentions

Making judgments about the meaning of images necessarily involves assessing artists, their work, their place in both social and art history, and their uses and sources of imagery. It also necessarily involves considering their intentions, which has sometimes been a critical dirty word. Nonetheless, an artist’s intentions always figure in the making of images, and often in their reception, too. Thus Schutz explained and defended her work by saying what she wanted to do—she verbalized her intentions.

Below are brief histories of two works of art drawn from the second and third decades after World War II. Each is by a well-known American artist. Both are white males, and each has made significant work featuring African Americans. My purpose is to give examples of the complexities involved in interpreting artists’ works, and to use their stories as a way to contrast the ideas of appropriation and representation described in the cases of Levine and Schutz.

 

In the same summer Emmett Till was murdered, the Swiss American photographer Robert Frank was taking pictures in New Orleans. Frank had emigrated from Switzerland in 1947 and worked as a freelance photojournalist for magazines like Vogue and Harper’s. But his heart was in new, more spontaneous kind of photography that wasn’t dictated by editors. Through the support of his mentor Walker Evans, Frank secured a Guggenheim fellowship and used it to travel around the US, photographing what he saw. His book The Americans contains eighty-three images he selected from over twenty-seven thousand photographs he took in his journeys that year.

The book is now regarded as seminal and iconic, though its initial reception was slow and often negative. In New Orleans Frank took a picture of a trolley car on Canal Street, which has been used on the cover of most editions of the book and is a fitting example of the exceptional nature of Frank’s work. (It is online at 100photos.time.com/photos/robert-frank-trolley-new-orleans.) Through the windows of the trolley we see white people in the front and black people in the back. The central figure is a black man looking right at Frank—and us—through an open window. His expression is complex. It conveys sadness and longing, but also a dignity in his awareness of—but not submission to—his circumstances. Its emotional contrapposto is the icy, sideways glare of a white woman sitting two rows ahead of him. The photograph is a singular, deeply felt, and superbly composed image, drawing on an encounter Frank had with a trolley. The imagery of white and black people as separated and unequal, yet moving together toward an uneasy future, seems almost prophetic.

Frank was a foreigner trying to understand America through his photography. His questions were not about the nature of art, but about the country. Initially Frank had a sense of gratitude and appreciation for America. But his experiences as he traveled changed him. Just four days before taking TrolleyNew Orleans he was stopped by police near a rural town in Arkansas. They noted his foreign accent and asked him if he was a “commie.” He was locked up, then released late that night and told he had ten minutes to get across the Mississippi River. Frank told a New York Times Magazine writer in 2015, “That trip I got to like black people so much more than white people.”

What sense would it make to tell the black man in the photograph that Frank’s image was only an idea in Frank’s head and not real in any substantive way? Does the fact that Frank’s identity and origins were outside of the American experience mean that he was necessarily biased about what he saw? Should his work be disqualified as any sort of reliable record about us—America—in 1955? Frank, now ninety-three, has been forthright over the years about what he was after and how making The Americans affected him. His intentions and attitudes have not been hidden. But the relative clarity surrounding Frank’s purposes in making The Americans is not always the way iconic images get made.

 

In 1963, less than a decade after Frank’s trip, one of the ur-figures of American appropriation, Andy Warhol, began a series of works that were later called the Death and Disaster Paintings. He had begun them at the suggestion of Henry Geldzahler, a young curator at the Met who told him that his Coke bottles and soup cans were wearing a bit thin. Geldzahler reportedly said, “It’s enough life. It’s time for a little death.” So Warhol took pictures from newspaper and magazine photographs, which he screen-printed onto canvas, often at several times the size of the original. The imagery included electric chairs, car crashes, plane crashes, suicides, and images of white troopers turning dogs loose on black protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. The photograph Warhol chose for what were collectively called the Race Riot pictures originally appeared in Life magazine. Warhol did several versions, including one in pink and one in mustard. The largest repeated the photograph from Life four times, in a grid with two red squares below and blue and white ones on top. The painting has had an impressive provenance, including being owned by Robert Mapplethorpe. In 2014 it was sold in an auction at Christie’s for nearly 63 million dollars.

Warhol is one of the artists everyone knows something about, like Leonardo or Rembrandt. His significance as a game changer in art is beyond question. It is easy enough to like his work, too, since his appropriation of media imagery apparently requires little of us as viewers. His frequent and oft-reported remarks about his art can seem Delphic and self-contradictory, with the result that any reading of his work can be met by an opposite reading. And so a long and winding line of Warhol interpreters has accompanied him since he emerged from his beginnings as an illustrator. Warhol was a celebrity, but his fame masked a private, enigmatic persona. At his funeral in 1987 the art historian John Richardson dwelled on the “secret piety” that lay behind Warhol’s carefully constructed public image, which had “fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, glamour, and that he was cool to the point of callousness.” Richardson described Warhol’s devout Byzantine Catholic upbringing and how he almost anonymously observed the faith throughout his life, including regularly volunteering at a parish soup kitchen in Manhattan.

The dissonance between Warhol’s public face and Richardson’s description of his private character seems evident when we hold the content of the original Death and Disaster pictures against Warhol’s repeated, decontextualized, and anesthetizing mode of representation. Did the Race Riot paintings, whose original photographs were so searing in their depiction of state violence against peaceful protest, move the artist or his audience to anger or profound sadness? Are the paintings political in the sense of being made to stir people to action? Francesco Bonami, a writer, critic, and curator of both a Venice and a Whitney Biennial, thinks not. Writing about these paintings in 2012 he questions “whether we can still accept Warhol’s genius without questioning his moral and political detachment from the dramatic events that were reshaping a society in which he, as an artist, was living and prospering.” He continues, “Warhol was spared the nightmare of political correctness, but that is not a justification for not taking a second look at a body of work that used issues without addressing them. …Andy was composing history using its music and discarding its screams.” Bonami concludes that “today we could not accept Warhol’s superficial, apolitical positions… but we are still here, and luckily so are his paintings.”

It is hard to know what to do with Warhol’s apparent indifference regarding the real events signified by the Race Riot paintings. It might be explained by the fact that the Death and Disaster works were early ones, made before he was fully formed as an artist. Some people note that he became more serious after being shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968. The difference between the persona and the art might also mean—as some have argued—that his works are a shyly sly critique of the numbness of mass culture. What better way to embody that than with serial repetitions of the distant, impersonal imagery seen in mass media disaster news? But there is no way to really know what he intended—which feeds the impulse for us to interpret his art in light of what we believe his intentions to have been. Interpretations become more urgent when questions of the artist’s moral stance are raised. Since Warhol was as successful in hiding his real self as he was in appropriating mass media imagery, there is unavoidable conjecture in anything we propose. Whatever explanation we adopt, it strikes me that the recent sale of Race Riot could be exhibit A in Hannah Black’s charge that the art world has transmuted “Black suffering into profit and fun.”

Power, Politics, and Religion

There is a faintly religious ring to Bonami’s judgment about Warhol’s “superficial, apolitical positions.” The current zeal for trying to filter art through the coarse screen of identity politics, and for removing artwork that honors despised institutions, causes, and acts, recalls some of the worst moments of the Protestant Reformation. Zealous reformers—or perhaps just regular people inflamed by the reformers’ rhetoric—“cleansed” churches of imagery, sometimes toppling and burning or smashing sculptures and whitewashing over frescoes. This was a largely northern European phenomenon and occurred significantly in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. But it would be wrong to think it was a uniquely Protestant act. The French and Russian revolutions were also marked by iconoclasm, and the practice extends far back in history, is widely distributed geographically, and has been employed by other faiths as well as by other political revolutionaries. History is full of image smashers, so the destruction of sculpted or painted images is not necessarily a religiously motivated act—but it is always a sign of challenge to institutions that legitimate power. One thing we have learned from the Marxists is how images function as a projection of power. Both veneration (or, since modernity, aesthetic absorption) and iconoclasm are witnesses to that power.

Of course power and religion have a long, uneasy symbiosis, too. New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson argues that membership or adherence to moral codes or statements of belief are not the best ways to understand religion. It is more accurate, he writes, to say that people create a religious way of life around their experiences and perceptions of ultimate or divine power. In this light it is interesting that Bonami primarily chastised Warhol for his art’s lack of evident personal political convictions, which Bonami seems to equate with moral failure. Surely at this point in our history, the power of politics is culturally ultimate, though it’s hard to think of that power as divine.

I didn’t “like” Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till very much when I saw it at the Whitney. She had two other works in the exhibit that I thought were much better, in which the subjects were invented, not historical. I don’t think she is well equipped as a painter to deal with the import of Till’s life, death, or place in American history. But I believe her when she says she was motivated by her sense of identification with the Till family by virtue of being a mother who loves her son, and that she felt a sense of tragedy and sorrow at the brutal desecration of Emmett’s life. Schutz is right; art can be a vehicle for empathy and connection. Wasn’t the original photograph of Emmett Till in his coffin so iconic because it touched a deep common chord of righteous sorrow and anger for black and white people alike?

If Open Casket was made as an act of meditation and reflection, that mode of viewing it was one of the casualties of the anger and hyperbole surrounding its presence in the Whitney exhibit. Without the controversy, the painting might have served visitors with an echo of the long tradition of meditation on images of the ruined, desecrated body of Christ. For a few visitors at least, Open Casket might play some small unrecognized roll in ameliorating our racial strife and division. I know that is asking a lot of an art museum and of the people who have paid admission to enter one. The old, slow, nurturing power of images seems pretty much lost, at least in the new images that frequent our public spaces for art.

The late philosopher Arthur Danto’s posthumous book What Art Is has a wonderful essay that pertains to this. In “The Body in Philosophy and Art” Danto compares the dearth of philosophical reflection about the meaning and experience of the body with the rich heritage of embodied meaning found in historic Christian images. He writes, “visual artists in the West had the task of representing the mystery on which Christianity is based—the mystery, namely, of the incarnation…. Through the incarnation, it is…God that is hungry, thirsty, or needy; and it is God that cries out in pain barely imaginable to those of us who have never undergone that order of extreme torture.” His point is that “by representing human beings through their inner states,” the Christian religion presented its beliefs in “terms everyone understands.” One effect of the contemplation of such images was a form of appropriation. We know that in some churches congregants were encouraged to cultivate the inner states represented in the depictions of Mary, Christ, and the saints. The goal was to effect a transformation of character that would begin to reproduce in the viewer the attitudes and acts of their sacred models. Imagery engaged with in this way has a kind of power, but it is achieved quietly, over time, not by argument but through the imagination.

There were a lot of bodies represented in the works of the Biennial. Many seemed distressed, some exotic or bizarre, a few were directly engaging, but most did not seem to be concerned with establishing sympathetic connections or with attending to inner states. It is unfair in the extreme to expect that the Whitney Biennial be like a church, even though more than one cultural critic has noted similarities between churches and museums. But for artists and viewers seeking imagery that might be socially redemptive, the old idea of inner transformation might offer some relief from the divisive and corrosive power of the religion of politics.


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