Giving classical music a younger image?
William J. Zick, who writes the excellent Africlassical.com, has taken exception to the cover art by French cartoonist Cabu on the new Calliopé release of the music of the Afro-French composer Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (Calliope 9373). You can see the artwork above, and William describes it as 'disturbing and bordering on ridicule.'
Here is Alain Guédé replying on behalf of the French label Calliopé: - 'Our idea was to use the cover as a means of bringing Saint-George – and through him, classical music in general – to an even wider public, of people from all different backgrounds. We want to give classical music in France a younger image. And I feel that the same thing can be done in the States.'
'Bordering on ridicule' or 'giving classical music a younger image'? Over to you, readers ....
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In fact, the "feel" of it immediately said to me, "60's Nonesuch cover art" ... and I mean that as a compliment.
Two reasons: I am not a fan of illustration that plays down facial diversity to such a strong degree. Not all Africans, African-Europeans, African-Americans, Australian aboriginals, or "lower-caste" Indians and Sri Lankans can sport the "European classic" beauty of a Kathleen Battle; and we have all seen (or most of us have seen) the human misery that the search for facial perfection (and a cute ski-slope nose) has led American singer Michael Jackson. There is also the anti-Semitic history to this type of stereotyping.
I am also concerned by the non-naturalistic, green color, in the illustration, of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges' skin. Composers are humans, and not Simpson characters nor creatures from beneath the sea or swamp. Such an illustration might be appropriate for a production of Rameau's Platee or the bass character in Dvorak's Rusalka (whose name escapes me); but is not appropiate to introduce an important and overlooked classical composer to new audiences.
[In an attempt at outreach, the Hillwood Museum of French, Russian, and East European Imperial Art, where my wife works, is running an insipid advertising campaign in the Washington subways featuring illustrations similar to those of Cabu. This American illustrator normally works to promote elite shops and upmarket shopping malls. I find the outreach campaign in poor taste]
[I am also waiting for John McLaughlin Williams to weigh in on this, if he so chooses. He and I both studied with the same African-American violin teacher at Howard University in Washington.]
I just want to say that William J. Zick has done a great job of raising his concerns and initiating this debate. This is exactly the kind of healthy discussion that should be going on.
Irrespective of whether you find the artwork offensive, or not, the conclusion seems to be that it was not the best creative call by Calliopé.
I hope it doesnt do them any harm. They are a great independent label who don't mind taking risks, and sadly that sometimes means failing.
Their organ recordings with André Isoir are outstanding. I particularly recommend the complete works of Nicolas de Grigny (CAL 39112) and The Art of Fugue on the organ of Grenzig de Saint-Cyprien en Périgord (CAL 3719).
And do keep the comments on that polka-dot outfit coming.
I find the artwork to be pretty readily suggestive of the racial stereotyping found in blackface and "mammy" iconography from the 19th and early parts of the 20th century in the US. However, it isn't all that obvious because there has been some transformation of the "stereotypical" content.
For example, the emphasis of the colors red (of oversized lips) and white (from white eyes and teeth) from blackface iconography are here transferred to the clothing of the Chevalier. So, yes, his face does not necessarily reflect the stereotype, but the clothing color does. It also manifests at least some connection when we consider the "cheap" fabrics associated with domesticated mammy portrayals -- in fact, here's a link to an online reproduction of a "mammy" cartoon poster that uses exactly red material with white polka dots for the mammy's head scarf:
The background color of the artwork also suggests the sickly yellow hues of the old poster caricatures (which helps to make the blackfaces look more inky by contrast). And let's not overlook the fact that the Chevalier is surrounded by what I can only interpret to be "normalized", properly dressed whitefolk. The context further suggests freakishnish and does not seem, to me, to reinforce the idea that this is a positive image of a musician of African descent.
It is entirely possible the artist is doing something sneakily clever; perhaps deliberately engaging the stereotyped colors and imagery and transforming it somehow diffuses its negativity and creates an attractive and "looser" iconography. I don't know. And maybe there's nothing behind it at all; maybe I am taking it too seriously and my interpretation is off the mark. But I'm not convinced it will communicate a benign message to everyone. That's what concerns me -- and I agree that Calliope is a quality label. I wouldn't want negative attention brought to them in the US (since they are recording and producing this music, after all), which is why I think they should consider changing the art.
My vote for this is "bordering on ridicule".
Do Guédé, Wozniak and Cabu THINK this will not push the buttons of people of African descent here in the US that they are trying to market this music to?
Guédé writes.."The drawing pays a faithful tribute to the life of Saint-George, in showing him surrounded by pretty girls." How does that translate to Black men here in the US? Does St-George not look like some freakish object in the cartoon from that point of view?
Joshua nemith's comments on the mammy look are very insightful too! (thanks for that)
Really! would Prince like a representation of himself like that?
Guédé writes "We want to give classical music in France a younger image". Is that TRULY what the younger people in France like to see in cartoon form? Is that what they are attracted to? Why wasn't a cartoonist selected who was born after 1960? Why not a French man of African descent AS TALENTED as Cabut portray St. George? Would it come out anywhere near as(personally speaking) offensive?
I quote this from the internet
"In February of 2006 one of his (Cabu) cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad appeared in a French newspaper, causing much controversy." ... how interesting! too sensitive?!
I applaud Guédé for the work he has done... let's not even dispute the fact that he takes alot of credit for the huge revival in St-George. It can so happen that as we champion some cause and are passionate about a cause, we are at times happy to 'settle' for anything and be numbed to the sensitivities of others who are EQUALLY passionate about the cause he has taken up.
Perhaps Calliope is happy to create controversy... well.... here it is.
Calliope should not market that cover here! point finale! They can surely find an alternative cover for elsewhere ie. North America and African countries etc.
It is definitely "bordering on ridicule" for me.