In March this year, the Whitney museum in New York opened an exhibition of contemporary American art which aimed to confront racism and poverty in the US. The curators took a politically correct approach: half of the artists represented are black and the exhibition has been described as being full of diversity. Yet a painting called ‘Open Casket’ by white American artist Dana Schutz has been the subject of much controversy. It features the disfigured image of 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African American who was brutally beaten and murdered in Mississippi in 1955. At the time, his mother chose to display his mutilated face in an open casket at his funeral – an image which was captured in a now-famous photograph – and it’s this image which Schutz has recreated in her painting.
The artwork has caused an uproar. African American artist Parker Bright spent a week standing directly in front of the painting to obscure its view from others, deeming it “an injustice to the black community”. British-born artist and writer Hannah Black took matters further, accusing Schutz of ‘cultural appropriation’. Black believes Schutz’s painting is depicting black suffering for “profit and fun”, due to Schutz’s position as a white artist and member of the oppressor class. Through an open letter to the museum’s curators, Black started a campaign not only calling for the painting to be taken down, but for it to be destroyed.
Only a few weeks later, a Pepsi ad featuring model and reality TV star Kendall Jenner was taken off air after being ridiculed, globally, for its attempts to capitalise on recent political protest in order to sell fizzy pop. In the ad, Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a stern looking police officer, to cheers from the crowd. The scene evokes the iconic photograph of Ieshia Evans, a black woman who stood peacefully in front of armed, white police officers who rushed towards her during a Black Lives Matter protest. Critics claim Pepsi, a multinational corporation, has no right to exploit the act of political protest for their gain; nor should Jenner – a rich, western girl with presumably little to protest about – be used as the face of this campaign.
These are two vastly different examples of work being called out by the public for a lack of political correctness. You may, like me, find it far easier to berate Pepsi’s ad than the well-intentioned art of Schutz. But can we define what fair protest is, and separate examples of it from political correctness that’s gone too far? And if so, who has the right to judge it?
In many ways, social media has given people the power to fight big brands and call out companies on their wrong-doing. Gone are the days when complaining about a product, brand or service consisted of writing a letter and sending it to a PO Box address, never to hear back. Today, without moving more than a finger, we can click on the Twitter page of any company or individual and post a complaint which has the potential to be seen by their entire social following. Companies and people are forced to deal with complaints competently and fairly, or risk losing a chunk of their customer base, or social standing. “Hurrah!” you may well say.
Yet in an article published in The Spectator in 2014, writer Clarissa Tan comments: “I can’t help noticing that certain sections of the population are now so acutely tuned into the issue of race that they spot racism where none is intended.” Tan’s comment relates only to race, but she raises an interesting point. Have we taken political correctness too far as a society? And, has the power to express our beliefs online to vast groups of people bred an overly-sensitive, excessively entitled, nitpicking culture of pedantics, who would sooner censor the thoughts, words and creativity of others than see work that conflicts with their personal values and beliefs? Was Pepsi’s ad jumped on by a pack of PC-mad wolves? And is Black’s campaign to have Schutz’s work destroyed anti-freedom of expression?
Trevor Phillips, former politician and chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, was heavily criticised for his channel 4 film – Has Political Correctness Gone Mad – for challenging ideas he used to champion. In the film, Phillips argues that fear of offending minority groups has stifled legitimate debate in society. He claims that this restriction on what counts as ‘acceptable’ views and conversation has helped extreme right figures such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage find a voice in society, and has lead us into the likes of Brexit. Phillips responded to the rebuke in an interview with the Guardian, in which he said: “A big part of it is that on the left, if you look like me, you’re supposed to think in a particular way. And they just hate it if a black person isn’t the person they want him to be.”
Pepsi issued an apology for their ad, claiming the brand was “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding”. Sure. The advert was supposedly devised by Pepsi’s in-house creative team who, you could assume, are too Pepsi-fied to spot the inappropriate connotations of what they produced.
In an interview with the New York Times, Schutz described art as “a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection”. She created the painting, she explains, because America still needs to change; young, unarmed black men are still being shot by police. “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America, but I do know what it is like to be a mother,” she says. “I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else… but neither are we all completely unknowable.”
I’m a white writer with liberal views. To me, petitions such as Black’s, to remove and destroy Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, suggests a desire to control freedom of expression. Active support for this form of ‘political correctness’ would be a frightening move backwards – or forwards into a 1984-esque, highly-censored dystopia – for our society. Yet as a white writer, Black could argue that the subject matter is not mine to dispute. Do I even have a right to state this view?
Visuals not owned