The Year in Visual Culture: “Black Death Spectacle” – Parker Bright and Hannah Black
On March 17, 2017, emerging artist Parker Bright walked into the Whitney Museum and stood in front of a Dana Schutz painting “Open Casket ” wearing a shirt that had “BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE” written. Because the painting was an abstracted image of 14-year-old racist-lynch victim Emmett Till, prompted a national debate on who has the right to represent whom in situations like this one, the limits of censorship, and the difference between depicting violence and exploiting the suffering of others. Hannah Black, a UK based artist, commented and said that it is not right that the very real suffering of people of color are being used as a subject to earn profit, especially by a white artist like Schutz.
I find the discussion on representation, censorship, and the exploitation of others’ suffering, as prompted by Bright and Black, to be one that is applicable to so many different kinds of artwork and not just the ones like Schutz’ piece. There is no stopping the representation of suffering or minorities in art. What it all comes down to however, is the perspective from which pieces like “Open Casket” is seen. For some, it may have been one of many wake up calls on the harsh realities being experienced by people of color, but for some, it may be seen in the same way Bright and Black saw it: a way of exploiting the suffering of others for money and fame. In this sense, visual culture plays a role in the interpretation of artwork depending on the context that the viewer has about the elements of a piece. Bright, who was an emerging black artist at the time, knew from personal experience the hardships that people of color have, whilst Black and Schutz probably only knew things based on research or based on mainstream depictions.
It is important thing to remember that when creating artwork, especially ones that will be put out for public viewing, we need to consider the different ways people can interpret the piece and its potential to have meanings beyond our intentions. The impact of the things we put out can be entirely different from our intentions, and this can be both in our favor or not.