In the United States, an artist paints a portrait of a dead black boy. At Imma, an art video looks at internment. Soon a mega musical set in the Vietnam War will open at Dublin's Bord Gáis Theatre.
What links all three are two questions that continue to bubble up like a noxious gas in the trenches of the culture wars: who owns the narrative in art, and who owns the right to outrage?
Dana Schutz is a white artist, and her painting Open Casket was at the epicentre of scenes of outrage when it was exhibited, earlier this year at the Whitney Biennial in New York. The painting was based on a 1955 photograph of Emmet Till, lying dead and brutally mutilated in his coffin.
In death, Till became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement as images of the body were published in newspapers and magazines
Till, a 14-year-old black boy, had been lynched in Mississippi. Insisting on an open-coffin funeral, his mother said: “Let the people see what I have seen…”
In death, Till became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement as images of the body were published in newspapers and magazines. It was from one of these, 60 years later, that Schutz drew her inspiration, saying it was in response to increasing episodes of violence against black people in the US.
Seeing the painting at the Biennial, an exhibition designed to explore the racial tensions and polarising politics sweeping the US, it didn't seem particularly exploitative to me, and yet a petition, presented by artist Hannah Black, called for its removal and destruction.
“The 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,” wrote Black in an open letter accompanying the petition. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s…” she continued.
Later, a group of artists would also call on the ICA in Boston to cancel an exhibition of Schutz's work, even though Open Casket was not included.
There's the problem: pitched in these terms, it seems I can't have an opinion on whether the painting was exploitative as, in the words of anti-apartheid activist Hugh Lewin in his South African memoir Stones Against the Mirror, I am wrapped in my "magic cloak of whiteness". Yet this viewpoint denies the possibility of empathy, and more crucially, humanity.
Everything that I can remember happening to me happened in Irish contexts
How can we hope to have useful debates, or even reasonable conversations, if narratives are exclusively owned by one side or another? Pitching the battle lines behind barricades constructed from the occluding fabric of ownership (black /white, victim /oppressor, offended/engaged) turns discussion into a series of grenades, lobbed from one side to the other.
This came to mind on a recent visit to Imma, where Mairéad McLean's No More is part of the Hennessy Art Fund for Imma exhibition. The subject matter of the award-winning film is internment, and it is introduced by way of a pair of framed letters, which McLean had written to her father when he was interned in 1971/72.
Considering the piece, I found it initially hard to frame my reaction, all the while aware that I was born in England. My family moved to Ireland when I was young, and everything that I can remember happening to me happened in Irish contexts (why do I even feel it necessary to explain this?), and yet I found myself self-excluding from forming opinions about the work because “my people” had done this to McLean’s.
While emotion is persuasive, it shouldn't become an argument clincher. Equally, the best artists can transcend their cultural legacies
I experienced a similar sense of anxiety at the extraordinary Counting Sheep at this year's Kilkenny Arts Festival. The folk opera is set during the 2014 Maidan revolution and I felt as if my opinions, however positive, were diluted by the fact that I'm not Ukrainian.
Considering it later, I began to realise that type of self-censorship in unhelpful – in fact it’s absolute nonsense. The critical success of an artwork doesn’t rest in the authenticity of its origins. Authentic experience gives you a particular perspective, but not absolute dibs.
The victim/oppressor dialectic also comes into play with some of the controversies surrounding Miss Saigon, the Cameron Macintosh mega-musical coming to Dublin this October. Protests have been mounted over the years, their origins perhaps best summed up by Sarah Bellamy of Minnesota's Penumbra Theatre, when she wrote: "It is by, for, and about white people, using […]the commodification of people and cultures, to reinforce and re-inscribe a narrative about white supremacy and authority."
Watching the musical recently, ahead of its Dublin outing, I couldn’t help feeling that it also showed America’s war in Vietnam as debased, misguided and a failure, as well as being destructive of so many of the American lives who did not choose the war, but who were nonetheless forced to participate.
It's also clear when the aim is to silence, damage or control
Again, it’s not so much a question of one side or another, or of the greater hurts inflicted, but of humanity.
Being offended is not the worst thing, and while emotion is persuasive, it shouldn’t become an argument clincher. Equally, the best artists can transcend their cultural legacies.
The key question about the validity of different perspectives is more to do with intent and imbalances of power, and it’s usually pretty clear when something is intended to demean, diminish and oppress. It’s also clear when the aim is to silence, damage or control.
Where the area is greyer, is where we need the conversations most.