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.
5 years later, in 2020, Seph Rodney wrote an article for Hyperallergic titled, Reflecting on the Mistakes I’ve Made as an Art Critic. Did he soften on Sherman? How has the art critic matured and expanded his horizons?
“At other times I should have been more strident in my judgments.
In 2015, before I became a staff member at Hyperallergic, I wrote about a series of photographs by Cindy Sherman in which she used blackface. I wrote that “it feels like there is not a great deal of critical work to be done in parsing them,” which is a really a way of shouldering aside my responsibility to deal with them critically once I decided to take the piece on. I also wrote: “While identifying the obvious problems of the photographs, particularly their approach to their subject matter, we can recognize that they do not represent the artist in her entirety,” which essentially lets her off the hook. However, she placed herself on the hook, by using the same shade of skin tone for all the characters, and by seemingly making the work with the intention that it only be seen by a white audience. In my concern for not being overcome with outrage and indignation I erred on the side of somewhat explaining away her work. I call it “atrocious,” but I don’t quite call it out.”
Ah, he’s come to realize he should have been harsher in his judgements. He clarifies why he’s come to this more humane position:
So in my criticism I try to make space for probity rather than fury and willingness to engage rather than to demean or dismiss — as long as what artists, curators, dealers, and other writers are doing is not supporting racist, genderist, and dehumanizing policies.
In the case of Sherman, because he determined that she was supporting racist policies, more fury and harsher condemnation would have been appropriate, indeed he needed to “call it out”.
He supports cancel culture to a large degree:
Cancel culture provides an outlet for anger and resentment at being demeaned, disempowered, and discarded by the prevailing culture that is generally white, heteropatriarchal, conservative, Christian, and vehemently protective of the current racist and sexist social order…
But finds it doesn’t “know how to legislate positive outcomes” or “articulate a promising future”. It may be worth noting here that in the name of finally eradicating from the human mind the evil of bias and prejudice based on race, gender, ethnicity, and religious beliefs… Rodney has clearly identified the enemy as a white, heropatriarchal (male], conservartive, Christian.
Something else beyond just call out culture is necessary:
We see the public acclaim given to certain critics and art historians who have made their reputations by doing the very necessary work of calling out dehumanizing politics. (Some alternatively have had success completely ignoring these conflagrations to pay attention to the marketplace alone, or some niche, esoteric aesthetic garden plot.) But I always want to ask once we’ve taken the culprits to task: What do we do tomorrow? Anger isn’t enough. I don’t want revenge; I want a revolution.
It looks like he’s become even more radicalized, where the punishment of calling someone out is justified and necessary given that the target is assumed to be “supporting racist, genderist, and dehumanizing policies”.
The issue of course is that the designation of what is “racist, genderist or dehumanizing” is thrown out ever more willy-nilly, with an increasing army of innocent victims, and he is advocating escalating the punishment of whomever comes between the cross-hairs. A little lesson in history might remind us that the conjuring of the crime of witchcraft exceeded the conjuring of the spells of the witches themselves, which as far as we know didn’t exist. Not that this is the case here necessarily, but it’s a grave danger one needs to keep in mind.
He’s doubled-down on his attack on Sherman, and while fury directed towards her is now entirely justified, only a revolution can fix the problem.
As for me, five years later, I am even more troubled by Sherman’s Bus Rider series then I was before. However, Seph Rodney’s art criticism has become indistinguishable from radical left politics. All of his self-criticisms as an art critic are instances where he fell short of moral purity in terms of racial and social justice. Here is the new litmus test of art and criticism. This, at best, represents the complete subordination of all of art and art criticism to a particular political agenda of today. At worse, it opens the door to the destruction of art and artists according to a singular belief system with its own limitations, biases, and prejudices. Even true believers wouldn’t agree that art should be ruled over by any other set of beliefs other than their own closely held ones.
I think art should be completely divorced from politics; that politics are inherently toxic; and that they are a pox on art. That goes for the politics of the religious right that waged war on artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, or Chris Ofili, and it includes the increasingly puritanical left that would furiously “call out” Cindy Sherman, and have her cancelled (along with Chuck Close, Egon Schiele, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Dana Schutz, John William Waterhouse, and anyone and everyone, alive or dead, it could eliminate based on any pretext].
When the revolution comes after art and artists you’ll have to excuse me for not righteously saluting the cause, and waving my giant red flag. It all smacks a bit too hard of the red guard. I’m an artist first, and a cadre in a revolution for blood sacrifice not at all. I’m AWOL, and a conscientious objector.
What if there was a war and I didn’t show up? People say you must join the revolution or else. I’ll sit this revolution out and hold on for something that is pro-art, pro-artist, pro-individual, anti-censorship, anti-violence, and anti-defining people by their biology. But we are told, You are either with us or against us! If you are not a part of the solution, you are part of the problem! White silence equals violence! Ah, the quest for soft targets, and for more gullible cadres. Sorry folks, I’m not taking the bait. I’m sure you can find someone who is eager to fight with or against you. Seek their company. I’m not even vaguely interested. I’ll tend my own garden, and be my own person. Let me put it this way, if I’m playing YOUR game, I’m not playing MINE. I like my game better.
“You say you want a revolution, well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution, well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out
Don’t you know it’s gonna be
Alright, alright, alright
You say you got a real solution, well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution, well, you know
We’re all doing what we can
But if you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell you is brother you have to wait
Don’t you know it’s gonna be
Alright, alright, alright
You say you’ll change the constitution, well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me, it’s the institution, well, you know
You better free your mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow
Don’t you know, know it’s gonna be
Alright, alright, alright
Alright, alright, alright”
The Beatles, Revolution.