On the first of what will no doubt be several visits to the 2017 Whitney Biennial I was confronted with an uneasy feeling. As I worked my way through the crowded galleries, I stood shoulder to shoulder with others pondering the works before me. It was like standing next to a stranger in a public bathroom, looking into the mirror. Are we staring at ourselves, or looking past one another wondering what the other person is thinking, while trying not to make eye contact. However innocuous the encounter, I walked away from each artwork feeling that we are all here because of a common purpose and a desire for shared experience.
The “Zeitgeist” portrayed in the Whitney’s newest survey of American art is one of seriousness and concern over the polarization in society. Significant artworks deal with themes of inequality and injustice that were at the forefront of last year’s election. Probably the most talked about piece is Dana Schutz’s homage to Emmett Till, the painting of a young black boy who was brutally killed following false accusations by a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. Controversy erupted as some black artists protested what could be perceived as profiteering on a “black death spectacle,” criticizing that – as a white female artist – Schutz has no ownership in the cultural heritage and the civil rights movement that the image of Emmett Till represents. In her defense, Schutz has made clear that she never intends to sell the painting.
I disagree with the criticism and feel strongly that it is for all Americans to own that shared cultural heritage including the shamefulness of white supremacy. It’s certainly better to confront that experience than to run away from it or deny its continued existence. Biennial’s co-curator, Christopher Lew on artnet put it this way: “It is deeply painful and traumatic—more so for some than others, in unequal terms—but it is something that we all have to deal with, and I think if we don’t confront it, if we don’t have these kind of conversations, then we’re not getting anywhere.”
That painting is also the subject of a personal confession and the source of that unsettling mirror-image I was feeling. In a moment of pictographic ambiguity, the yellow cloth surrounding the victim’s head suddenly resembled the shock of yellow-blond hair that we have all become too familiar with. Was it Emmett Till’s casket open in front of me or was I staring into a dystopian void in which Donald Trump was staring back at me? However fleeting, this weird moment of confusion was a reminder that the subject of racism is ever present in society today. Our fate as Americans – white and black – are all wrapped up in the heritage that led to the death of Emmett Till and we have a shared responsibility to deal with it. I am reminded of the song “Everyone’s a little bit racist” from the musical Avenue Q:
If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit,
And everyone Stopped being so P.C.,
Maybe we could Live in — harmony!
In the words of another notable white figure, controversial on matters of racial injustice, the Polish-British author Joseph Conrad said this: “In order to move others deeply we must deliberately allow ourselves to be carried away beyond the bounds of our normal sensibility…” Whether through literature or painting, art has a way of transcending reality to engage us in new ways of thinking about ourselves and our shared experience.
Biennial co-curator Mia Locks wraps up the exhibition this way: “When people keep talking about racism, when people keep talking about inequity, when people keep talking about debt — when conversations come around without you bringing it up — you realize: These are the ideas!”
For a show bustling with the energy of an overzealous crowd in search of the next big controversy, the Whitney Biennial also offers quiet moments of reflection. The busy visitor will miss the beauty and poignancy in “Harmony of Difference”, a video and music installation by jazz musician Kamasi Washington. As I stood and watched, I could hear hushed questions from impatient passersby asking “is anything going to happen”.
Slow images rolled by as visitors came and went. For those who patiently waited, Washington’s beguiling music evolved and the video rewarded greatly with “Desire,” “Humility,” “Knowledge,” “Perspective” and “Integrity” – the five themes beautifully woven together. My take away of the whole biennial: for true understanding, we must take the time to look (and listen) carefully and to see deeply.