In 2017, Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” was exhibited at the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York. It is a portrait based on a photograph of Emett Till, a black boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. The painting, which was intended to express the author’s solidarity with the suffering of the boy’s mother, became the target of criticism. Representatives of the black community decried the use of the iconic image by a non-black person in the context of the art-world and called for the removal of the painting.
The affair raises questions about freedom of expression in art that have not yet been discussed in theoretical debates, although they are pressing for artists, audiences and art institutions. A common debate concerns the extent to which an artist’s freedom of speech should be respected when their work expresses controversial ideas. But there is also a question about the extent to which freedom of speech may be respected when the context of the work’s creation is controversial. This includes cases where the work has transformed the landscape in a way that is unacceptable to some (e.g., in land art), where the artist has committed significant offences in relation to their collaborators (e.g., the cases of sexual harassment), or where the work appropriates another artefact to which someone has an intimate, if not proprietary, relationship (e.g., the case of Dana Schutz’s painting).
The workshop will be an opportunity to bring together disciplines that surprisingly meet very little and where there has been so far little discussion of these issues: free speech scholarship and aesthetics/philosophy of art.