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Is it ever acceptable for artists to don blackface?


At Hyperallergic, Seph Rodney reflects on the recent Twitter hashtag “#cindygate” and its associated discussion about Cindy Sherman’s use of blackface in a 1976 photo series. After condemning these photos as “obviously deplorable,” Rodney points to more critically and artistically sophisticated use of blackface by other artists, and wonders whether there’s any use in revisiting these works by Sherman today. An excerpt is below. (The creator of the hashtag, #Mhysa, responds to Rodney’s article here.)

It’s difficult to determine what my response should be to these revelations that Cindy Sherman has done blackface in her work. The “should” here is important. As a college professor of mine said, there is a tyranny in this word. If one is black, as I am, one likely recognizes the tacit, quasi-contractual rider to this political category of personhood: to defend this identity, which even under normal circumstances is persistently besieged by structural and systemic attempts to exploit it, demean it, or take a piece of it as a souvenir. Even if this were not the case, my ethics are such that I would want to point out the atrociousness of Sherman’s work. Still, my responsibility to defend my political tribe is felt more acutely when a fellow member calls out racist aesthetic production that at first blush seems representative of entrenched issues.

Sherman’s bus rider portraits evokes other instances of blackface pursued in art practice: Eleanor Antin, Martha Wilson, Joe Scanlan, and the underlying issues of the privilege presumed and the power wielded by those who publicly exploit black bodies as spaces for projection. Though, in the case of Wilson’s work, “Martha Meets Michelle Halfway,” (2014) Wilson’s invoking of the First Lady’s persona is consistent with her relentless, decades-long examination of our collectively held expectations for how women are to appear and behave in public. Wilson’s critique of women’s depictions and correlated roles, in this instance, took the form of an impersonation of Michelle Obama posing for the kind of official portrait that might be hung in the White House. This work spotlights the inherent performativity of this genre of image making and satirizes the politics underlying representations of the First Lady — a conversation which Wilson had started in the 1980s by imitating Nancy Reagan. Wilson’s blackface work profoundly contrasts with Sherman’s in its clarity and sophistication, and crucially, in not making ill-considered presumptions about who the audiences for the work will be.

Unlike Wilson, Sherman’s portraits seem not to be informed by the notion that black people would view this work — a distressing assumption that exposes one of the art world’s principal political fault lines. As Mhysa says, “the art world has a lot of work to do regarding the Black viewer.” Inevitably, countervailing arguments are marshaled to defend the exploration of and experimentation with disturbing, unsavory, or forbidden ideas (including the colonization of black bodies). With regard to this work, it’s pertinent to ask “for whom is it made or shown?” Still, the pendulum can swing too far in the direction of perceiving an overall agenda of hostility towards people of color, for example when DiasporicX claims that, “the art world is centered around the white gaze on the blk/poc body.” The art world as a multi-faceted sphere of activity, and Cindy Sherman’s work, do not define this world, nor set the agenda for what is seen, discussed, or valued.

Images from Cindy Sherman bus rider series via the Daily Beast.