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
There is just nowhere, it seems, where you aren’t going to stumble on something where you might never expect it–a recipe for a cake, like a bloody swollen thumb, an ‘innocent,’ in the sense of being almost certainly, unconscious, — simile–packed with some of the ugliest assumptions about black people, and white fear.
Last night I made garlic bread out of my not quite fresh baguette from Food not Bombs. This morning, I looked at what was left–and thought, French toast–pain perdu. Why not–tasting in my imagination… umm, savory garlic under the sweet syrup. This sound so good it must be a thing–so I Googled “garlic desserts,” and sure enough…
The one that caught my attention–black garlic chocolate cake with raspberries. Wow. Sounds FABULOUS! There was a little personal story on how the cook worked up the courage to try this–she had never used black garlic before, and the idea of sweets with garlic was new as well.
And there it was. Looking for a simile for the anxiety she felt about this. Like “walking down an unlit alley at 1 AM. In Detroit” she wrote.
And we all know, of course: Detroit = Black.
This, in a recipe for … um, chocolate cake. With garlic. Black garlic. Her unconscious must have been pounding at the door to looking for a crack to leak this one out.
I had been ready to link this article, and the recipe–it sounded so good–I love somewhat unusual combinations that keep making things to eat an endless adventure. But no…not with that line ticking away inside the cake. The assumption, so clear, that everyone who read this recipe would share, both the fear of dark alley’s in Detroit, and know, without thinking about it—without necessarily even consciously, think: Detroit/Black, and if confronted, would vigorously deny having the least taint of …
Didn’t someone somewhere say something about “the unexamined life?” Maybe he was thinking, not about the person whose life was unexamined, when he said, that life would not be worth living: how our unexamined assumptions, when they become a part of the social fabric… make lives miserable for so many others. And if this is what our unexamined life does to others, what is our life truly worth?