To hear many people on the left, political correctness as a threat to free speech in America is mostly a myth — just an overreaction from hypersensitive white men, and some white women, who don’t like being criticized and challenged by the less privileged. And yet in the past few days, a museum and an artist in New York City have been under attack because of a painting’s perceived sins against political dogma — and the liberal defense of artistic freedom has been tepid at best.
Ironically, the painting, “Open Casket,” created last summer and exhibited at the Whitney Museum’s biennial exhibition of American art, was itself inspired by progressive concerns about racial justice. It represents the dead body of Emmett Till, the black teenager lynched in Mississippi in 1955 on suspicion of whistling at a young white woman. But the artist, Brooklyn-based Dana Schutz, is white. In the eyes of some people, that means she has no right to use black culture or the black experience as a source.
After the exhibition opened earlier this month, British-born, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black (who is of Russian Jewish, Irish and Caribbean descent, but self-identifies as black) posted a letter denouncing “Open Casket” as white “appropriation” of black suffering and demanding not only its removal, but also its destruction. The letter was eventually co-signed by more than 30 people.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the lunacy of a situation in which judging art by the race of the artist becomes “progressive.” At least as striking is Black’s explicit contempt for freedom of expression. She states that “white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights.”
You’d think that the art world and the liberal media would be outraged at this blatant call for ideology-driven censorship, the way it rose up nearly 20 years when then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani sued the Brooklyn Museum of Art over the exhibition of a supposedly sacrilegious Virgin Mary painting by Chris Ofili, a British artist of Nigerian background. (The painting, which showed Mary as an African, was decorated with tiny cutouts of pornographic images and a clump of elephant dung.)
Yet in this latest controversy, numerous artists, curators and others who spoke out on social media sided with the would-be censors, accusing Schutz and the curators of complicity in “white supremacy.”
Some attacks have been extraordinarily nasty, including a tweeted photo of Schutz with obscenities scrawled over it. Hoaxers sent out a fake email purporting to be from Schutz, apologizing and calling for the painting’s destruction. Leftists who say the real threat to free speech is the harassment of women on the internet have been curiously silent.
Meanwhile, the New Republic, a leading journal of progressive opinion, posted an article by two staff writers charging that Schutz’s painting insults Emmett Till and his family. They urged readers to “try not to interpret [Black and her co-signers] as book-burners doing the work of censorship.”
The curators of the biennial have said the painting will stay, and Black has taken down her petition; it’s unknown whether she will continue her efforts to have “Open Casket” removed. But there is little doubt that the campaign will have a chilling effect on other artists.
Does the right under the Donald Trump administration pose a greater authoritarian threat than the politically correct left? Quite possibly; but the danger from the right is exacerbated by the left’s intellectual bankruptcy and betrayal of freedom.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.