Update, July 2016
I wrote this article in October of 2015, but recent incendiary comments forced me to reevaluate and clarify my position. In a nutshell, an article in the popular online art magazine, Hyperallergic, accused Cindy Sherman of making a “deplorable” and ethically “atrocious” “racist aesthetic production”. This was based on her decade’s old subway series in which she depicted herself as a variety of types she saw on her regular subway commutes. However, the article only showed one image from the series (most the images are easily available online), and didn’t include any context, nor attempts to acknowledge the intent of the artist.
The image included was of Sherman as a black female subway rider, and hence, since she used black make-up, the article was emotively titled, “Cindy Sherman in Blackface”. On reflection, there could have been a very informative and interesting examination of the history of blackface, and how it might overlap with Sherman’s subway series, and this could easily have transpired without accusing her of being a “racist”, which borders on slander. There are dire consequences for public figures who are denounced as “racists”, therefore we should use this term accordingly, and with caution.
The author of the article insists that you can call someone’s art “racist” without calling the artist “racist”. This is hypothetically true, but the opposite is far more likely because the only way you can prove someone is a racist is by pointing to something they said or did. Further, while one could do something racially insensitive, or even racially offensive, without being a racist, the term “racist” applies primarily to people rather than novels, songs, or artworks. When the term is used as an adjective rather than a noun, it reflects back on the person. For example, if we say a book is “racist”, we are talking about the author, as the book has no agency.
To be a “racist” one must believe that another race is inferior to his or her own, dislike them, or seek to oppress them… Sherman’s subway series does not indicate she wants or believes any of that. An article asserting her work was ethically atrocious, deplorable, and racist surely reflects negatively on the character of the artist. Instead of exploring the underlying issues of “blackface” and striving to increase awareness, the article was a sensationalist hit piece that merely stated foregone conclusions with exaggerated adjectives. It was also click-bait.
Below is my original article. And if you really want to dig into the topic, I’ve included my debate with the author at the bottom. He declined to persist after a couple good exchanges, and I was ultimately banned from commenting at Hyperallergic. Nevertheless, on reflection and rereading my comments, I still think I had the more balanced, broad, and progressive argument, which I delivered with equanimity. [Note that the moderator at Hyperallergic had a strong tendency to moderate comments when he disagreed with the opinion, rather than when someone was rude or disrespectful. That is not moderation, it’s an abuse of power.]
An article “Cindy Sherman in Blackface” appeared in HYPERALLERGIC today accusing Sherman of making a “deplorable” and ethically “atrocious” “racist aesthetic production”. Knowing some of Cindy Sherman’s oeuvre, I thought this might be an overstatement and an underestimation of the artist, especially considering the nature of her work. I wrote a comment in response, which turned out to be so long that I made it into a blog post. This led to a debate between myself and the author, which I’ve included at the bottom. It’s a tough issue to come to a fixed conclusion on, and I’m not sure that’s a desirable thing. Below is my original article.
I wasn’t familiar with Sherman’s bus rider series, and the article oddly did not provide any images for us to assess, other than just this one.
Taken on its own, this image is fairly sure to infuriate. Here we see a white woman wearing black makeup, presumably aping a black woman, and in so doing reaffirming racial/cultural/class stereotypes. We may conclude that Cindy Sherman is a “white supremacist” and close the book, having done our social justice warrior sleuth work. But have we really delved into the matter and found a genuine culprit to lambaste and publicly shame?
I tend to like to do a bit of research, and not take easy conclusions at face value, jump on the bandwagon, and start hurling stones [see my defense of Glenn Brown against attacks of plagiarism]. I looked up the “bus rider” series, which is from 1976. I quickly discovered that all of her subjects in the series are painfully obvious caricatures, and deliberately so, including the white ones, and the cross-dressing ones.
“the blacks are all exactly the same color, the color of traditional blackface makeup. They all have nearly the same features, too, while Ms. Sherman is able to give the white characters she impersonates a real range of skin tones and facial features. This didn’t look like irony to me. It looked like a stale visual myth that was still in good working order.”
The first part of this is probably a fairly accurate assessment. Sherman’s black make-up is not very good, and being white herself she’s able to achieve far more convincing white skin tones in her portraits of white characters [albeit that since the photos are not color, subtle gradations of tone may be very difficult to achieve]. Is her failure to capture range of skin tones racist, or just unskilled, or shall we say – bad? Here are some larger images from the series for you to examine for yourself [you can click through the gallery].
I can see why people could and would take offense. But if we are going to find these conspicuous stereotypes repugnant, why not just label Sherman a “bigot”, and not let her get away with her other gross stereotypes (if one insists on taking them literally) besides black ones just because she was better at pulling them off with whatever means were at her disposal? Surely her poses and costumes, which are easily as important as the make-up she used, are grossly cliched for all parties. Do white girls really go around in Goldilocks braided hair?
In this series Sherman photographed herself as fifteen different passengers, using make-up, wigs, costumes, posture and body language to imitate different sexes, ages and social status. Her purpose was to hide her own identity, and highlight how identity is constructed. Should we conclude that she was trying to nail down those constructions as essential truths?
I’m sure Sherman has done something in her career to offend anyone and everyone, if anyone wants to take issue and insist that Sherman actually is trying to perpetuate the stereotypes she depicts. Just look at this series of what appear to be mostly white women, all of whom have atrociously unappealing skin, and frequently because of their attempts to be tanned (look less white)!
White women are her primary targets, and she attacks/deconstructs them mercilessly. Every one of those images is highly offensive if one sees them as attempts to define, rather than, say, subvert, fixed stereotypical identities. Do any of those look flattering, convincing, or nuanced? They are all mean and nasty portrayals. And there’s plenty more in her oeuvre to offend, if one insists on being a literalist.
What should we do now if we suppose we’ve really uncovered Cindy Sherman’s hateful and deplorable racism or bigotry (and we haven’t selectively taken some of her parodies literally)? Perhaps we should protest anywhere her art is publicly shown until the pieces are removed. We can demand a public apology and admission of guilt. We can shame her in social media.
Or maybe it really isn’t that simple, and we’re not giving her the benefit of the doubt at all. Maybe we’re just assuming that she must be consciously or unconsciously perpetuating racism, cultural imperialism, and white supremacy because, well, we know she’s white. But, yes, taken on their own, a few of her depictions of black bus riders look really insulting.
If I only saw this image, up close, and I didn’t know anything about Cindy Sherman, I too would think the worst, and join in lighting the torches and hunting her down. And here I can’t escape thinking that she should have thought better of including images like this, because it’s in such poor taste. Even if she is an equal opportunity cruel caricaturist, because of extant stereotypes and the power they have in society, some may be far more hurtful, and less easy to laugh off than others.
Notice the author of the article called her work “blackface”, which is a rather loaded term considering its origins in slave times. But in calling Sherman’s wearing black make-up and impersonating black people (among others) “blackface”, is it making too strong of a parallel? Why not say it reminds us of blackface, or it has overlap with blackface…? Since the original black-face was inherently racist, arising in a time when it was believed (through spurious pseudo-science) that blacks were a separate and inferior race (science has now shown there is only one race), is it, and will it always automatically be racist if any white person impersonates a black person under any circumstances? Is there any other possible reason to do so other than dehumanization and ridicule? If we see a white man wearing a LeBron James jersey, for example, we wouldn’t think he’s a racist. Do we see Rachel Dolezal as wearing “blackface” even though she’s a civil rights activist?
And what of John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me, who artificially darkened his skin, with the help of a doctor, in order to experience racism first hand from a black perspective?
The author doesn’t seem to have made any attempt to unearth what Sherman’s proposed intent might have been, but instead brands her with the social crime of “blackface” and all that implies. While we can retroactively see Sherman was culturally naive and insensitive to think she could wear black make-up without being seen as donning “blackface”, can we distinguish her project and probable intentions from those of the traditional blackface of the 19th century? After all, her art project wasn’t a minstrel show. She, at least, seems to have believed she was about deconstructing stereotypes.
I’m sure many will argue that because of “institutional racism” Sherman’s depictions of black stereotypes are far more powerful and potentially destructive than her much more prolific and deliberately vicious attacks on whiteness. Perhaps the article in question is evidence of that.
And are we all cool with this image? Is this about fortifying white supremacy?
Personally, I’ve been uncomfortable with her imagery for a long time. I remember being taken a bit aback by one of her depictions of herself as an aging Asian woman (or someone trying to look Asian), which I saw in a group exhibit. I think it must have been this one.
Look at them convincing skin tones! And just to emphasize that the victims in her mature work are mostly mature white women, here’s another gallery of choice, unsavory specimens.
In her defense, I don’t think she wants us to be comfortable with those images. The material I most liked of hers is when she seemed to appropriate the authority and romance of Hollywood films, creating stills for movies that never happened (and also examining standard Hollywood female roles). I like appropriating the look of authority and undermining it.
Sherman is a complex artist with a large body of work. Would we absolve her of her purported crime of “blackface” if she’d only done the make-up a little better in her early work? Is it too easy to assume Sherman wasn’t critically aware of race issues at the time she made the series, which seems highly unlikely? Consider her reservations about her own father:
“My dad was such a bigot. He was a horrible, self-centred person. He was really racist and he’d talk about the Jews and blacks and Catholics even. I was raised Episcopalian. In the nursing home [towards the end of his life], he had one of these electronic carts to get around and he’d be honking the people in their walkers and with their canes hobbling – so he was prejudiced even against his fellow old people.” [see article here.]
Was she passionately against racism while unconsciously supporting it?
Are we really sure we aren’t attacking Sherman for what she unravels in her own work, and insisting that her portrayals of herself as blacks be taken at face value, and not as intended to undermine racial, class, and cultural stereotypes. I’m not sure. I would prefer to give her the benefit of the doubt rather than throw stones. But if the people slamming Cindy Sherman are right, they can credit themselves with hurling lots of stones with expert aim and the intent to kill.
People can be forgiven IF they are wrongly accusing Cindy Sherman of atrocious and deplorable creations, because parodying or accentuating typecasts may not succeed in only undermining them (by revealing they are either projections or masquerades), but may also reinforce them depending on the viewer’s response. This is why I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about her work. How is an older woman supposed to feel about a grotesque mockery of her, if she happens to have some of the same clothes on when viewing the photo…? But I would be hesitant to pigeonhole Sherman in the name of fighting against her ostensibly pigeonholing others. There’s more to her art than one can absorb in a sitting, and we may be doing her an injustice if we take her work very literally, and restrict it to whatever political relevance we ascribe to it. The scope of art is much broader than how it functions rhetorically in this or that agenda.
With hindsight, it was probably a mistake to include black people among the 15 types she impersonated in her “Bus Rider” series. Should she have done the series at all, and would it have the same meaning if she eliminated black people as personages she could impersonate? Would people have complained at the time had she not included black people, as if they didn’t matter, and in effect made them invisible? And should we take the decades of work she’s done subsequently into consideration, before easily making conclusions about her earliest works?
I think I may be more impressed and intrigued by Sherman for her complete bus rider series, than if she’d made an abridged version. My general feeling, which may not be worth much, is that Sherman didn’t think she was being racist at all at the time. I’m also fairly confident she thought she was doing something of social value, and we know from her statements about her family that she found racism repugnant in others. So, if we grant those things it is still possible that her work is nevertheless problematic in relation to things like “blackface”, and could unintentionally function as racist. People probably feel it was too presumptuous of her to think she could occupy black skin, and know what it’s like to be a black person in America. And that is where this discussion becomes more nuanced, interesting, sticky, and deep.