Artistic responsibility

I wrote this originally for the Race & Fiction Writing member page, but I’m moving it here since it’s something I really care about. Emoji smiley face.

A few of us discussed the matter of Dana Schutz’s painting at the April meeting. For me, the issue comes down to artistic freedom versus artistic responsibility. (One of our values being “both/and,” I’ll note that these are not necessarily in opposition.) Something I realized after the meeting was that while I had taken pains to present both points of view in the handout posted here, in fact the artistic freedom (“for the painting”) argument is amply represented in our white-dominated culture. What’s lacking, I feel, is a broadly understood argument for artistic responsibility. Therefore, I recommend that interested folks check out “The Case Against Dana Schutz” by Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye at The New Republic. Speaking personally, the great effort it took to open my mind to the idea that I should, need and ought not to write on whatever subject inspires me—to take on board that I might not have a right to do that, and, perhaps more to the point, that I can lovingly and thoughtfully choose not to—the very difficulty of taking that step reminds me how powerful white supremacy is.

Edit: A letter from L.M. Williams in the April 24 issue of The New Yorker makes the point with clarity.

Much has been said in Schutz’s defense about art as empathy and the importance of resisting self-censorship. These are fail-safe points in discussions of artistic freedom, and they sidestep a foundational problem: the decision to make art without regard for the lives involved, and no matter the consequences. Even well-intentioned artistic empathy can become a form of trespass when it comes uninvited and replays the damage done to the people with whom the artist seeks to stand. The kind of racist violence depicted in “Open Casket” still happens, and still goes unpunished. Protesters, in asking, “Where are the images of Till’s murderers?,” are asking why America memorializes hate crimes against its black citizens by gazing at the victims instead of by holding the perpetrators accountable.

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