Classroom Topics: Ethics, cont'd

I teach collage/assemblage in all my studio courses as a means of discussing appropriation in art. Recently I mused about this in “How to Avoid Art Theft (or Get Famous From It)” by discussing the ethics of developing or using resources and inspirations in art making. In the wake of the Whitney Biennial snafu--including a large, abstracted painting of Emmett Till by Dana Schutz, a white artist-- I see that I have left out an important piece to the discussion of appropriation and ethics in art.

Backtrack to my printmaking course last semester: two students were discussing the internet’s outrage at the Moana costume. This led to a very natural (if uncomfortable) discussion of cultural appropriation, and how this costume is particularly offensive because the wearer would be donning someone else’s skin.

Paul Gauguin "Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch)" 1892

What is problematic with a white artist depicting a black person? Nothing, I suppose. However, context is everything. This conversation is nothing new. Exoticism was part of Manet’s Olympia. Primitivism was cultural appropriation (whether “appreciating” those cultures or not). Whether Dana Schutz’s aim was to play at white shame (as Hannah Black generously speculates), document, or educate, this painting is problematic. It exploits pain and suffering, or worse, negates it into a pretty abstraction. Though a small abuse in comparison to the murder of Emmett Till, it weighs heavy on the stack of continued misuse (or undeserving use) of black images, sentiment, anger, and pain.

(L) Emmett Till Open Casket Photo, (R) "Open Casket" by Dana Schutz

Because this is a conversation I will be entering into unprompted in future courses, I foresee discomfort, even debate as part of this discussion. Even in googling cultural appropriation resources, one blog article has “content warning for descriptions of racism” in italics at the top. I'm ashamed to say that I myself was a little miffed when I saw that Hannah Black’s Facebook petition was no longer accepting non-black signatories. Ultimately I arrive at this: It does not matter if I, as a white person, am uncomfortable, in disagreement, or do not understand a non-white person’s demand or request for how or when I represent them. I still must honor it. Maybe that line should be on the sign-able part of my syllabi. White discomfort must cease to be part of the racial dialogue, especially in the arts.

Does this mean white students can’t make work about social and racial justice? Absolutely not. It does mean, however, they have to consider the ethics of their images in a meta-context. For my fellow educators, here are Questions to Consider When Depicting Another Race or Culture:

  • Am I dehumanizing someone? (If the answer is yes, move along).

  • Am I exoticizing/erotizing someone? (This is a good question to study Gauguin to.)

  • Is it ethical to make money and/or reputation from use of this image? (If the answer is no, move along).

  • Even though this image is public domain or free use, am I “allowed” to use it? (Search your conscience. Ask the internet.)

  • Am I playing the role of benefactor? (If the answer is yes, move along).

  • Do I understand this image? (If the answer is no, do some research.)

The art world is a weird place. Something sometimes great about America and the American art scene in particular is that we hugely believe in personal liberties and freedoms. So, the conversation surrounding “Open Casket” is an interesting, necessary one. Freedom can be defined not just as permitting anything, but giving into one another’s liberties. The liberty to make a statement, even an insensitive or exploitative one, has to be offset by the ability to protest that statement. Still, it is infinitely better for Schutz’s painting to have been created and then called out as crass appropriation than for it to have been prohibited in the first place. The question of ethics lies not only upon the artist, but curators, and finally the public in their response to the work. A perhaps important read of Black’s letter would be that consumers of art and curators have every right (and possibly an obligation) to protest or deny the display of cultural appropriation, even if it results in white discomfort.

*The author's opinion's are her own.

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