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:
The problem was this:
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.
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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?