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Poster for Cindy Sherman show at SFMOMA in 2012 (photo by torbakhopper/Flickr)

Here we go again. #Myhsa (aka @E_SCRAAATCH) has called attention to artist Cindy Sherman’s blackface performance in some rarely seen works from 1976 by using the tag #cindygate. The work consists of black-and-white portraits of Sherman posing as bus riders of varying ethnicity, making what would become the signature methodology of her oeuvre. These performance/photography images in which she appears in blackface are so obviously deplorable, it feels like there is not a great deal of critical work to be done in parsing them.

Margo Jefferson, efficiently does so, critiquing the series in reviewing the 2005 exhibition titled, White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art, shown at the International Center of Photography. She writes, “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.”

So there are two dangers in this artwork: first, that it relies on and thus propagates the visual myth of black characters being interchangeable; and second, it reduces people to the sign of their skin color alone, and thus dehumanizes them, leaching them of political agency, of ontological potential, of beauty. This is a particularly odious failure of the work because it looks to ostensibly represent human beings.

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.

Divining its relevance to current art practice is one way to respond to Sherman’s blackface photographs. Another way is recognizing that this work was made when Sherman was 22 and quite young in her practice. It is disappointing, but artists must often go through a process of moving through their bad work so they can get to the better work. 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. Thankfully, her work grew and changed since making these portraits. This work presents me with what is actually an opportunity, not an obligation: to use this comprehension of Sherman’s early ethics to fuel a greater sensitivity to the subtle presumptions artists, galleries, and museums make about their audiences. The idea here is to use this conversation not merely to dismantle an artist’s work, but to also widen our perceptive abilities and thus enlarge our politics. The idea is to move beyond denouncing and towards discovery.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...

10 replies on “Cindy Sherman in Blackface”

  1. Wilson’s piece “Martha Meets Michelle Halfway” shouldn’t be praised because it’s not as immediately crass as Sherman’s work. Her First Lady’s persona project is interesting but in failing to understand how race works, with regards to how woman appear and behave in public she is being just as exploitative as Sherman. Michelle Obama is America’s first black First Lady. America is a country with a long history of using blackface in its arts to degrade black people. Wilson’s piece fails to explore that important tension. It treads the same path of many white artists who dress up in black skin, who treat blackness as a costume for their own ends.

    1. Dear OB,

      Thanks for this, but I disagree slightly. I think Wilson’s sights take in race, but also take in other issues. I think the work is quire cognizant of Michelle Obama’s mighty place in our history, but Wilson is interested in how women are also shaped and manipulated by assumptions maintained around how they should look as public women. Taking Obama to be a major signifier of these politics is really recognizing her as a public figure and that seems right on to me.

      1. Thanks for your reply, I wasn’t expecting one. Without wishing to get into an argument I have to say I vehemently disagree. You have to come from a place of privilege to think that race is something you can just extract or downplay in the narrative of a black woman’s life to make the points you want to make about gender, or whatever else. Wilson may think she has reverence for Obama but I don’t know how she can when she is using a tool that has been and is still used to degrade black people to make art about her. That level of ignorance is actually arrogance. You can’t get any insights into blackness by wearing it as a costume, all that does is highlight your failure to understand/respect what blackness is and how it is lived. None of which makes for useful art.

        1. I’m enjoying this conversation but I recently came across this and wanted to add it to give everything a little more context: “Interestingly, I’m curating a series of performance artists for BAM and Clifford Owens wants me to perform as Michelle Obama because of my history of having done First Ladies, which adds the question of race to the whole subject of performance of the self. I’m hoping nobody throws a pie at me! It is for his ongoing analysis of what performance art is—he wants the audience to start yelling or asking questions.” http://www.brooklynrail.org/2014/11/art/martha-wilson-with-jarrett-earnest

        2. Thank you OB,
          I appreciate your candor, and emphatically disagree with the position you have staked out. Privilege is inherent in some of our subject positions, but that does not mean that the world should be Balkanized into regions which may only be legitimately represented by those chosen spokespeople of that group. We impoverish our public discourse by choosing to do so. I am privileged (to an extent) by being male, but I don’t believe that this condition precludes me from making work as an artist with regard to gender roles, or making arguments as a critic on what it is to be a woman in this place and time in history. This is the problem with identitarian politics: they don’t complete the revolution; they only take it to the place where we are now.

          Second, tools do different things in different people’s hands. I dare say that Wilson does not degrade black people with her performance. More, She is not trying to find insights into blackness; she is rather trying to propel an exploration of and argument around gender roles. If black political identity is part of that project, again I think it perfectly valid for Wilson to use the public persona of figure who is black to construct a contention that participates in the gender conversation. I don’t think that Wilson needs to ante up with her knowledge of what it is to be a black person in the US in this moment to make art that is relevant to the questions she poses. You say, that her failure to understand or respect what blackness is does not make for useful art. Again, I ask the question that is crucial to politics, as I did in the original post: For whom (is this art not useful)?

          1. I typed out a hella long response but deleted it because. A/ I’m not getting drawn into discussing the need to understand blackness to make successful artwork about it. Because B/ The answer to that seems obvious and it has nothing to do with identity politics or privilege but common sense. C/ I’m pretty sure no matter what I say I won’t convince you why Wilson’s work is a failure. I respectfully bow out of trying.

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