A Painting, a Crime, a Controversy

Research paper by Christina Spiesel

Indexed on: 09 Jan '20Published on: 23 Dec '19Published in: International Journal for the Semiotics of Law - Revue internationale de Sémiotique juridique


The exhibition by the Whitney Museum of American Art of a painting of the lynched Emmett Till by a white woman artist in its Biennial survey exhibition in 2017 caused a controversy that went to the heart of the contemporary art world in the United States. There was a demand made by a group, writing on behalf of artists of color that the painting be removed and destroyed. That demand gave birth to an intensive and very public conversation among important critics, members of academia, and artists. What is the role of identity (and its politics) in art creation and exhibition? Implicitly, what is the role of gatekeepers who can influence the direction of the art market through promoting the work of some artists and not others? What are the obligations of major institutions in shaping public opinion? I seek to test the public responses to the painting and its challengers against what can be seen with sustained observation in the painting itself. Do the issues inhere in the painting or was the painting captured for an external conversation? I hope that this is an example of what evidence that kind of observation can provide—a matter of interest not just in the discourses of art but also of evidence in the context of the law.