Quantcast

«

»

Apr 23 2012

Racism? Let them eat cake!

Sometimes stuff comes up in the news and I just don’t bother going after it. There are low-hanging news stories that are so silly or frivolous that I can’t think of anything worthwhile to say about them. Sometimes I file them away for a rainy day when I don’t have a lot of time or energy, or on the off chance that I’ll be able to link to it later in a more substantive piece. So when I read about Sweden’s “racist cake” incident, I figured it was worth taking a pass:

Sweden’s culture minister is facing calls to step down after she was photographed cutting a cake shaped in the form of a naked black woman. The incident involving Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth happened at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. According to Radio Sweden, the museum said the cake was supposed to highlight the issue of female circumcision. But the Association for African Swedes said it was a crude racist caricature and called for Ms Liljeroth to resign.

A few people asked me to respond, but I thought it was a waste of time. After all, it’s a very silly story about an art installation that, as is often the case, was provocative and not in the greatest ‘taste’ (sorry for the pun). Avant garde art is, by definition, ahead of public opinion and designed to shock to prove a point. The involvement of the Swedish culture minister was a regrettable move on her part, but what would you do if asked to cut into a living cake at an art gallery? Staunchly refuse and launch into a tirade against the artist? It was the result of really shitty staff work and a questionable piece of art.

But damn if that confection didn’t have staying power. I guess it’s true – chocolate just doesn’t come out! So here’s a brief issue-by-issue breakdown of my thoughts.

1. The artist’s intent

First of all, everyone knows my policy with regard to intent: it means precisely dick all. Just because you don’t mean for something to be hurtful doesn’t suddenly remove the harm it causes. The only circumstance in which intent matters is when deciding guilt – when it comes to racism I am less interested in laying blame than I am in identifying harm (and, specifically, how to avoid harm in the future). However, when discussing art, intent is a key part of criticism (except when talking about things like abstract expressionism, wherein the intent is intentionally removed).

To hear artist/dessert Makode Linde talk about his piece, the cake was supposed to represent the depersonalized African body – treated as a curiosity and exotic delicacy rather than as a component of someone’s human experience. By literally giving the body a human face, capable of expressing emotion and suffering, the installation was intended to juxtapose the extreme nature of, in this case, female genital mutilation in order to further highlight the depersonalization inherent in the cake body. Yes, it’s a bit esoteric and certainly requires you to understand what’s intended, but that’s the nature of a lot of art.

2. The artist’s race

One of the problems that arise from this installation is that the artist is in blackface. Indeed, the ‘skin’ of the cake is exaggerated black – the whole piece is an exaggerated caricature of African tribal raiments (almost certainly a continental melange rather than a faithful representation of any one culture). Additionally, Mr. Linde ‘blacks up’ his own face in order to match the cake, exaggerating the features in a deliberate nod to the racist portrayals of Africans during the classical colonial era. The fact that Mr. Linde is, himself, of African descent, confuses the issue quite a bit. After all, the mere fact of blackface is not the issue – after all, Spike Lee’s use of it in Bamboozled was a similarly deliberate attempt to highlight the monstrosity of the history of anti-black racism. It is pretty inconceivable that Mr. Linde was unaware of blackface’s history, and his use of it fits with the ‘dehumanization’ theme of his installation.

3. The artist’s sex

Here’s where things get tricky. Inasmuch as black men’s bodies are fetishized and obsessed over, black women’s bodies are subject to far more scrutiny and commodification. Features of women’s bodies that are stereotypically ‘black’ – big lips, big hips, big butts – are constantly exaggerated and pawed over. Indeed, black women’s bodies were exhibited as ‘freak show’ attractions in Europe during the early days of African colonization. This practice has become less egregious but continues to this day – black bodies cannot be seen as beautiful, only as a collection of sexualized objects situated alongside “unattractive” ones (to say nothing of the phenomenon of black women’s hair).

Makode Linde is not a woman, but he feels comfortable co-opting a woman’s body to make an artistic point. It is similarly unlikely that Mr. Linde isn’t aware (at least intellectually, as I am) of the phenomenon of the depersonalization of African women, but it is not something that he will ever experience himself. This fact becomes self-referentially apparent when one considers that he is attempting to make a point about how the issues of African women are ignored by Europe, without having an African woman take part in the display. This begins to go beyond merely ‘insensitive’ and crosses into the realm of ‘self-defeating’ and ‘painfully ignorant’ by way of male privilege.

4. The audience

Here’s the problem. Within the cloistered world of modern art, this piece would be nothing more than an issue of poor taste and questionable message execution. However, without a deep understanding of the issues at play, most of the meaning is lost on an audience who are left to make their own conclusions. The whole situation clearly made the culture minister uncomfortable, as she was unsure how to react. While it exposes the ignorance of the audience, that same lack of understanding also provokes reactions other than thoughtful contemplation.

In other words, the problem wasn’t necessarily this:

A photo of the cake

The problem was this:

The minister feeds the cake to... itself, as everyone smiles and laughs

Everyone yukking it up as the genitals of the cake are cut off, snapping pictures and completely missing the point. An all-white audience laughs as a caricature of a black woman’s body is cut into, screaming all the while, before the excised piece is fed into the cartoonishly-exaggerated mouth. This symbolism is way more powerful than anything that Mr. Linde could have conjured on his own. It accomplishes the exact opposite of the intent of the piece – it reinforces the same structures of racial inequality that the piece was intended to criticize (which qualifies it as ‘racist’, despite its anti-racist intent). I can’t think of any circumstance where this wouldn’t have been the case, save the artist explaining the issue at length to the gathered audience before the exhibition of the piece (and even then, who knows how people would have reacted?), which would have ruined the ‘shock’ value of the piece.

5. The conclusion

So how do I feel about the cake? I think it’s still a frivolous issue – a clueless audience doesn’t understand a poorly-executed artistic statement and the point soars over everyone’s head. All I can say is that it highlights the fact that until we are all able to unpack these kinds of issues we will keep butting up against these same problems forever.The furore kicked up perhaps serves as a useful learning tool to spark the conversation that is needed, but that’s a bit like crediting the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for raising “awareness” of environmental issues – it may have cause far more harm than the value of any reflexive good.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

P.S. – Racialicious has a comprehensive take on the issue, with input from a variety of perspectives. I found it very thorough.

P.P.S. – The most ridiculous reaction to this thing I have heard so far is from the person who complained that nobody would be upset if the cake was white chocolate, and therefore the whole thing was a non-issue. For the life of me, all I could think of was why not choose vanilla cake?

25 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Enkidum

    I want to know if it tasted good.

  2. 2
    jamessweet

    In other words, the problem wasn’t necessarily this:

    The problem was this:

    I found that the most convincing part of this post. I’m a little bit less down on the piece itself than you are, but where there seems to be little doubt is that the circumstances of the venue and the audience made it basically impossible for the piece to function as intended.

    As to your conclusion, I think the media reaction has been completely counter-productive, not just partially. The treatment in the media seems to be along the lines of, “ZOMG blackface, they must have been making fun of black people!”, which entirely misses the point of what has gone awry here, and IMO fosters an atmosphere that makes it more difficult to examine racial issues in and open and honest fashion.

  3. 3
    dorfl

    I apologize for that cake on behalf of… those Swedes who do not object to me speaking on their behalf, I suppose.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    Swedes didn’t make the cake. A single Swede did, and on its own it wasn’t a TERRIBLE idea, just lousy execution and a really unfortunate photo.

  5. 5
    dorfl

    True. But if I’d said “I apologize for what I – and such people as would allow me to apologize on their behalf – may have done or possibly failed to have done, that has directly or indirectly promoted a social climate in which such a cake can be created and be met with such a response” I would have sounded a bit too much like the agnostic priest in Creatures of Light and Darkness.

  6. 6
    Crommunist

    Heh. The apology is less important than learning something, so if you can tell me that this incident has given you a clearer understanding of how to critique racial statements/ideas, I will be well chuffed.

  7. 7
    Anne C. Hanna

    I have to admit, the cake itself did look kind of delicious, if it weren’t for the racism sauce. I would’ve been confused and conflicted too — do I eat the yummy cake, or is it more important to hang on to my intellectual integrity and basic human decency?

  8. 8
    Anne C. Hanna

    And, to be clear, I’m not trying to rag on the people who ate the cake. The whole thing really does sound like it must have been massively awkward and confusing.

  9. 9
    dorfl

    Hmm…

    Start with “Don’t use racial caricatures, or similar, to make a point about racism, unless you really, really know what you’re doing” and specifically “don’t do it unless you’re sure that your audience will understand what you’re trying to say”.

    Also “Being a member of an ethnic minority does not automatically make you immune to sexism, or by extension homophobia or other prejudices”.

    I guess the more important point for me to remember is not to automatically say “Well it’s a black guy doing it, so it’s got to be all right”. Or to assume that my response is necessarily non-racist simply because the thing I’m responding to is.

  10. 10
    dorfl

    I admit, looking at the photograph I can’t really decide whether to parse Lena’s expression as “Ha ha black woman-shaped cake” or “I am really uncomfortable and people are pointing cameras at me, better smile”.

  11. 11
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I’m all about that last paragraph of yours. The discussion that could have been had wasn’t – and not only in the gallery.

  12. 12
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Nervous laughter vs. racism is funny laughter – two laughs hard to tell apart that frequently occur together. And they are nearly impossible to distinguish in photos.

    But I’m going out on a limb here & say at least some of the laughter enjoying the funny, funny screaming from the African woman-cake being hacked to bits.

    So funny! Soo, so,…

    I just can’t do it any more. I look not so much at the culture minister who was thinking who knows what, but the center-left guy holding his camera high and the two fore-ground audience members immediately to camera-guy’s left (our right) who seem quite, quite amused.

    I look at them and wanna hurl.

  13. 13
    dorfl

    I agree. When you’ve pulled out your camera/cellphone and started taking photographs, you can’t really claim that you were actually thinking “What’s going on? What are they doing? Why am I here? I’m just going to be quiet, eat my cake and leave as soon as is polite”.

  14. 14
    smrnda

    Sometimes making people uncomfortable is a good thing, but sometimes the problem is that the people present look too damned comfortable for me to believe anything positive could have been accomplished. These are privileged people from a pretty affluent Western nation – in a sense, I think of this as a privileged artist appropriating a real, horrible problem faced by women in other cultures as a way for him to be artsy-fartsy for an evening.

    I kind of agree that the piece itself was not so bad as the execution and context it was put into, but artists should think about that. It’s kind of how if a white guy got up on stage and decided to ‘pretend’ he was an ignorant racist as a way of say, showing up racists as being ignorant and stupid, depending on the context it might not be clear that he wasn’t just saying things that he could only get away with under pretext of ‘ironic social commentary.’

  15. 15
    kdaigs

    Great piece! The blog I mean, not the artwork. I have had some mixed feelings about this controversy from the beginning. I absolutely agree that this is one very poorly executed performance, for many of the reasons stipulated in your blog post. I won’t rehash everything you said, but I think the thing that really bothered me the most was the fact that the artist was male. In my opinion, the same complications surrounding race (say, if the artist was white and not Black,) apply to gender. I do have a few comments though, for your thoughtful consideration.

    Firstly is the issue of the Linde’s use of blackface. You very incisively described the practice of re-appropriating racial stereotypes by members of disenfranchised or marginalized cultural groups in an effort to mount critiques and raise awareness of these same racist practices. I’m not disputing anything here, only adding that having looked up some of Linde’s other work, I noticed that this is definitely a part of his larger art practice. In fact, this is something many artists have done within postmodern and postcolonial theoretical frameworks to mount their critiques. Here in Canada we can point to the fabulous Cree performance and multimedia artist Kent Monkman and his Miss Chief Eagle Testickle persona. (As a curious side note, Monkman recently received criticism for his performance at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., as being a waste of tax payers’ dollars and advancing the, “gay agenda in art.” Those insidious gay scoundrels!! One news source actually questioned whether any real Indian chiefs were aware of this imposter.) My point here is only that this is nothing new. I do, however, miss the connection between blackface, female circumcision, and cake. I get the broad critique going on in the work about the consumption of the sexualized, objectified Black female body, but I feel like Linde sort of mashed up a few issues here unnecessarily. The female circumcision issue is not highlighted as well as it could be. In fact, I hardly heard any mention of it in the reactions people had to the work. The most common complaint came with his use of blackface, which seemed to have worked against him in trying to raise awareness about genital mutilation. Also, the cake part just plain grossed me out.

    This leads me into my second comment, which comes in with the public reaction the work has produced thus far. If there is anything successful about this work it is in the reaction of the attendees at the performance. I have never felt so uncomfortable as when I viewed Linde screaming out in agony while the Swedish culture minister makes the first incision into the cake. A big part of this discomfort is the caricaturish way in which Linde screams out. And then there’s the laughter… My skin crawled! But, it is exactly this skin crawling reaction that is my point. Part of me wonders if Linde did not anticipate this nervous reaction by a group of mostly white Swedes. In the end Linde managed to replicate the conditions under which Europeans have traditionally objectified and alienated a Black other. As a secondary audience on the internet, we become privy to what has indeed become a ‘racist spectacle’ to which the public rightly rails against. Do I think that Linde could have anticipated all this? Not really. As I stated before, I don’t think this work is particularly good, whatever that means. In the first place I find it problematic that he replicated a tradition of the exotic Other performing for a European audience in this context. However, Linde’s comments that the minister whispered in his ear, “things will be better for you after this,” at the outset of the performance does not ring particularly true. If the culture minister did say this, I would be surprised if it was unsolicited by the artist. As it is, I think that Linde is playing up the controversy to enhance this secondary experience of the work.

    Finally, my last word on this work ties in with your discussion of intent. You are right when you say intent matters when it comes to art, but not always. Sometimes the most successful works have consequences that were not intended by the artist, whether they own up to it or not. There are often consequences or reactions to works that were never intended by the artist. Sometimes this happens to the benefit of the work, other times to its detriment. If I have one thing to say about this work, it’s this: The work was poorly executed, however the effect it produced in the end was to highlight a racial reality that still exists in our time, even in the face of the myth that beautiful, peaceful countries such as Sweden are absent of racism or xenophobia. Unfortunately, this message doesn’t exactly advance much of a discussion on female circumcision…

  16. 16
    Lukas

    I just want to point out one specific thing about “blackface”: this is pretty much a specifically American thing. Outside of the US, minstrel shows with stereotypical caricatures of black people were not particularly popular. It’s specifically an aspect of the US theater culture. Hence, the idea that blackface is racist is specifically a US concept. Outside of the US, people typically don’t perceive white people masquerading as black people as inherently racist, since they don’t have the historical baggage that Americans have.

    Complaining that people outside of the US do something that Americans think is racist *due to their own specific history* is a bit strange, in my opinion.

  17. 17
    Dianne

    If I may misquote Molly Ivins, my first reaction to this story was essentially, “Some days you open the newspaper and it’s like opening your freezer and finding Fidel Castro sitting there smoking a cigar. Just kind of hard to know what to think.”

    I’m still not sure what to think. As a piece of shocking avant-garde art meant to offend the bourgeois it was successful. Though I do wonder how “avant-garde” a showing where the minister of culture of the country shows up can ever be said to be.

    As a statement about race or gender or FGM it’s so full of yuck that I’m not sure what can be said about it. Was Liljeroth playing the role of the “bad guy” by ignoring or discrediting Linde’s screams, as in trying to say, “This is what FGM looks like and in another time and place the screams wouldn’t be fake and the cuts wouldn’t be in cake?” If so, why the laughter and (ick) eating the cake afterwards?

    In the end, what the piece definitely did do was give Linde a lot of publicity. Which makes me wonder if he has any real interest in commenting on racism or sexism or abuse or if he’s just trying to hit hot buttons to advance his career. Especially given the jumble of all of the above in this exhibit.

  18. 18
    Anne C. Hanna

    Lukas, as far as I can tell, the Golliwog style face that the artist was wearing is actually a European-origin thing, and is also racist. See:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golliwogg

  19. 19
    tim rowledge, Ersatz Haderach

    I agree a *bit* with Lukas and the point about the different view of blackface in Europe. I think I’d characterise it as the difference between hateful caricature (US version) and (hmm, hard to come up with a precisely appropriate word right now) condescending caricature. Both are tacky, racist, demeaning actions. Hatefulness often results in more violence and death than condescension though perhaps institutional condescension causes more widespread problems over the long run?
    One shouldn’t forget the once wildly popular “black and white minstrel show” that aired in the UK for a large part of my childhood.

    The golliwog thing is a bit embarrassing personally; they were a popular toy when I was an infant in the UK. It’s more than a bit cringe making to think back to that now but I was after all only 2-3 y.o. at the time. The thing is though that I loved that golly and I’ve never been able to think of black people as threatening just because of their skin colour. Maybe there is a connection deep in what passes for my mind.

  20. 20
    carlie

    Not only did the artist not consult and bring in a black woman, but there is not a single black woman, or any other woman who is not lily-white, in that room at all. It’s not just the culture minister; in an event designed entirely around the issue of female genital mutilation as practiced by certain cultural groups, it seems that not a single member of any of those cultural groups was a part of the “in-group” having this event.

  21. 21
    hall-of-rage

    Arrgh yes, hipster irony, how we do hate thee.

  22. 22
    Anne C. Hanna

    Oh, yes, I can certainly get behind the idea that it’s important to recognize that blackface unpacks differently in Europe than in the U.S. I just wouldn’t classify it as necessarily not racist just because of Europe’s different history with racism. I can certainly accept that many white Europeans might not think of the golliwogg caricature as racist, and I’m not gonna hate on people like you for innocently loving a golliwogg doll as a kid (any more than I think it makes me a bad person that in my childhood I enjoyed the story of Little Black Sambo). But of course the actual social effects of these things may be wildly different from the benign image they might seem to have from the perspective of someone who’s not being caricatured by them…

    In light of that, I think the potential positive effect on you that you mention from your childhood golliwogg doll probably doesn’t outweigh the overall negatives of having condescending caricatures of non-whites floating around in society (and I suspect you may agree with this?). If we want white kids to grow up learning not to see black people as threatening, it seems to me to be obviously better to just give them dolls that look like normal black/asian/native american/etc. people, or that are caricatures only in the same sort of way that many white dolls are caricatures, rather than having weird ethnically-specific and condescending caricatures like the golliwogg.

    So, *shrug*. I think the golliwoggs are one of those things where nobody involved in making or enjoying them was necessarily a horrible evil KKK-level racist, but they’re still part of a general structural racism in our society that we probably ought to not be promoting any more if we want to make the world a more humane and equitable place.

  23. 23
    tim rowledge, Ersatz Haderach

    {Not sure why I couldn’t ‘reply’ directly to Anna’s second comment, but this is my reply}
    Yup. Pretty much everything you said. Except to add that generally speaking I’d rather be inadvertently insulted than deliberately; that way there is at least the lack of malice and better possibility of an amicable resolution.

  24. 24
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Honestly. my first reaction when I saw the video was to puke. Literally.
    I think I would have puked on the cake, wondering what kind of statement that would have been.
    GM of African women being turned into and event with cake was kind of missing the point it might have intended to make on an astronomical scale.
    What was the woman meant to represent, and what the minister?
    Not even starting on the people being delighted in the back.

  25. 25
    Anne C. Hanna

    I think these comments have a limited reply depth in order to preserve readability.

    In any case, I agree that inadvertent insults are in some ways better than deliberate ones, but they can still be pretty tricky to negotiate around, because on the one hand, one is still rightfully angry at being insulted, but on the other hand, showing that anger gives the source of the insult an excuse to believe that *they’re* the offended party, because it’s obvious to them that they didn’t mean any harm so they don’t feel they deserve hostility. Thus, the act of calling someone out for inadvertently discriminatory behavior can be twisted around into a transgression against civility in its own right, and this portrayal can then be used to turn otherwise potentially sympathetic people against you.

    So in some ways it’s almost easier to deal with deliberate insults, provided you’ve got a cadre of even marginally decent folks around you, since these days deliberate discriminatory nastiness will usually cause even people who are otherwise somewhat sympathetic to discrimination to reject the perpetrator. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still glad to be in a society where we’ve gone a long way towards whittling discrimination down from a state where open nastiness *was* generally seen as acceptable, but the other stuff is still a fairly substantial challenge as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>