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Dana Schutz's Paintings Wring Beauty From Worldwide Calamity

Painting today may be ever so good, as in a magnificent show of new work by Dana Schutz, at the Petzel gallery, and still have you wondering what it’s good for. Can it make a significant difference in our culture? A Schutz painting in last year’s Whitney Biennial would seem to have done so, but haplessly. Her naïvely well-meant “Open Casket,” which presented a semi-abstract image of the murdered Emmett Till, jostled a hornet’s nest of prevalent racial hurts and angers. Protesters declared black suffering off limits for white artists. Defenders of Schutz invoked freedom of expression. The arguments sailed past each other, with one exception. After Schutz was accused of exploiting a sensitive subject for money, she swore that she would never sell the picture. Missing was a discussion of “Open Casket” as a work of art dealing with a theme that is characteristic of Schutz: the aftermath of a disaster. She consistently responds, though rarely so topically, to widespread alarms of social, political, and spiritual disorder—the daily unreason, the falling apart. She vivifies present conditions of life on a faltering planet as dramatically as an artist can while staying devoted to aesthetic ideals. Without respect for the sincerity of those ideals, painting will readily become prey to cynical imputations...

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