Artist Dana Shutz's painting of Emmett Till’s open casket funeral roused pleas of censorship to the Whitney Biennial's curators to have it removed from the exhibition, and then destroyed.
Shutz's detractors claim that it's immoral for a white artist to exploit a tragedy of racism against black people for her own ends, and this is a sound sentiment.
But what if Shutz's intentions were pure? What if she was genuinely compelled to paint it?
We cannot say.
We also cannot say whether the open letter renouncing the painting was an act of self-aggrandizement through righteous indignation. An exploitation of a perceived exploitation for the sake of attention and self-congratulation. And therefore this is a desecration of Till's murder for the same purposes.
Regardless of which party (or either) has acted from a place of nobility or baseness: Censorship has no place in art. It is non-democratic, and a threat to the expression of every artist. If our personal values are offended by art we have the right to express that, of course. But we cannot start burning books and trashing paintings. This would be an act of fascism. It would be an increasingly common example of left wing ideals spiraled so out of control that that they have lost sight of their own values and become the very thing they claim to despise.
What are your personal values? Are they for liberty and free expression? Or are your values not personal, but simply fueled by the rage of a mob mentality? Fundamentalist Christianity is a mob mentality also.
When Chris Ofili used elephant dung in his painting "The Holy Virgin Mary" in 1996, Christians, and even the mainstream media, railed against the artist and the Brooklyn Museum for housing it. This painting was far more anodyne than Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" to cite only one example, particularly because art scholars defended Ofili as his use of the dung as a sacred object was a merging of iconographies and not a sacrilege.
Our culture is a culture of insincerity, where an artist may very likely exploit social
injustice of which she has no personal experience or concern to enhance her own career.
This is also a culture of shame, and of self-victimization as an emblem of self-importance. When we are offended we are rewarded with praise from others. When we detect ill intentions where there may be none, we come off as righteous. This is narcissism, this is exploitation.
Are not the current political climate - and the politics of the Art World itself - hostile enough to the Arts? If we can't foster peace among one another, how can we expect our world leaders to act peaceably? This is hypocrisy.
But we definitely cannot perpetually rekindle a McCarthyist witch-hunt of blame and shame toward one another. McCarthy’s targets were primarily artists, filmmakers and journalists after all. We can't burn books like Stalin or slash paintings like Hitler and then say we oppose fascism.
At times it is better to circumvent our own passions for the sake of our values, and to care for one another.