I keep thinking, that had Dana Shutz kept that specific association to herself–the photograph of Emmett Till in his casket–that there would have been no problem. But then, it probably wouldn’t have been accepted into the Whitney Biennial, and there is its failure, both aesthetic and ethical. That it has to draw on the title for its power is a sign of it’s weakness, of it’s failure as a purely visual work.
I think that the power of any work of art–of any medium or form, lies in the veer from direct association, even if that reference is specific and representational. She chose an abstract and ambiguous rendering of her idea: so far so good–but then, maybe because she thought that’s what would get her into the show, she had to give in to the urge to Name it.
A public image as charged, and as specific to the people involved, as that photograph, is all but beyond the possibility of direct representation. The public caste is so strong, so loud, so opaque, that it defies penetration. What we might hope for in a work that comes out of an artist’s desire to respond to such events–is that it take us deeper, that it illuminate what we did not, could not see in the public image. That it strips away the title, the naming, from the received associations, and takes us to a place we had not, could not have imagined without it.
Sensational, news-laden titles are inexcusable shortcuts, evasions of the harder work of the imagination. Whatever merit or power this painting has, is erased by misplaced ambition, by the surrender to the utterly corrupted ideas of artistic “success” in a capitalist world