Bread and Circus

An online journal of culture

Month: July, 2007

Cindy Sherman: Her “History Portrait” Series as Post-Modern Parody

by Editors


Cindy Sherman: Her “History Portrait” Series as Post-Modern Parody Book cover-Cindy Sherman History Portraits -- buy from

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Bread and Circus senior contributing writer

uch ink has been spilled over the work of American photographer Cindy Sherman. Born in New Jersey in 1954, Sherman’s artistic career began in New York City in the 1970’s; she is perhaps best known for using herself as the subject of her photographs. That said, her works are not self-portraits in the traditional sense, for she adopts diverse personae (from the Latin for the “masks” used in drama) by donning make-up, setting herself before elaborate backdrops and wearing fanciful dress. Even in childhood, Sherman’s brothers and sisters recollect her often playing dress-up. In fact, she has continued to dress in costumes as a hobby (even in public) ever since. (See note 1)

Her “History Portrait” series of thirty-five photographs is particularly interesting for its blend of Post-Modern consciousness with timeless masterpieces of European masters. She created the group during the years 1989 and 1990 while she was living in Rome with her now ex-husband, the French film-maker Michel Auder. (note 2) Though nearly twenty years old, the series remains a classic; just this summer a multi-artist show at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis included some of her “History Portraits” in their exhibition “Portrait/Homage/Embodiment.”

The images in the “History” series either relate directly to images in classical European painting (the so-called Old Masters), or relate more generally to types found during that period. Although she created the series in (arguably) Europe’s greatest living museum, La Città Eterna (the Eternal City), incredibly she claims that she derived her inspiration vicariously. She’s been quoted as saying,

When I was doing those history pictures I was living in Rome but never went to the churches and museums there. I worked out of books, with reproductions. It’s an aspect of photography I appreciate conceptually: the idea that images can be reproduced and seen anytime, anywhere, by anyone. (note 3)

That said, the photos remain original conceptions, loosely based upon—but not duplicates of—original works.

Sherman began work on the series, apparently, as a commission to create images for use on Limoges porcelain plates. Duly inspired, she continued in that vein, making images in celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution of 1789. (note 4) At the opening of her corresponding show at Metro Pictures Gallery in New York, the photos were printed on a large scale and were hung in ornate gold frames—much like classic European paintings are hung in museums.

Though primarily a photographer/film-maker now, her attraction to painting began early in her life; as a school-aged child she often created drawings and paintings. In fact, contrary to what one might assume, photography did not even come naturally to her; in the early Seventies Sherman actually failed her first undergraduate course in photography. She also has claimed that she never did well in Art History where she had problems memorizing names and dates. (note 5) Downplaying her art-historical savvy, she’s said,

I’m illiterate in the historical, classic knowledge of photography, the stuff teachers attempted to bore into my head, which I resisted. The way I’ve always tried to cull information from older art and put it into my work is that I view it all anonymously, on a visceral level. (note 6)

She really blossomed artistically after graduating and moving to Manhattan. In 1983, she recalled a pivotal, painting-related inspiration for her unique approach to photography: “I had all this make-up. I just wanted to see how transformed I could look. It was like painting in a way.” (note 7)

Most art historians like to discuss Cindy Sherman’s photos in terms of a Feminist critique of the “male gaze”. Feminist art criticism assumes that the making of art—as well as its iconography and reception by viewers—is gender-influenced. (note 8 ) As a Feminist, therefore, Sherman’s work would serve to challenge the traditional male view of women’s roles in art and society. (note 9) In part, I agree that Sherman explores the changing face of women’s roles in history. In doing research on her “History Portrait” series, however, I became inspired to follow a new tack. Read the rest of this entry »

And the hits just keep on coming

by Editors



And the hits just keep on coming–

Barry Bonds, responsibility and a continuing conversation

By Frank J. Colagiovanni, special contributing writer

Since mid-June when Bread &Circus posted my essay “Forgive Me Father, for I have sinned: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Number 756,” we’ve gotten some interesting feedback from readers and quite a few hits from people just stopping by. And, while it would be great if everyone left a comment to continue the discussion—which is what the site is all about—the few we’ve got seem to be running in a very interesting vein.

And all the while, as we’ve been taking this topic around the dance floor—discussing the ills of the culture, the role of the media and the general condition of sport in the modern era—Barry Bonds, the subject of the article, has continued to hit home runs. Not quite at the clip he was hitting two years or even a year ago, but he’s still plugging away; now only four to go before he ties the most revered record in baseball.

What surprised me about the responses posted on B&C and in a few conversations I’ve had with sports fans and non-fans alike, is that there seems to be to a higher level of distrust, frustration and disgust with “the media” than there is with someone who is about to break a cherished record under…well, let’s call them dubious circumstances. It’s as if cheating really isn’t all that bad; that there are degrees of cheating, and that some cheating, by some people and in some circumstances, is almost acceptable. One of the facets of this story that seems lost in the shuffle is that the current record holder, the beloved Hank Aaron, isn’t by any stretch of the imagination on board with this situation. He’s stated publicly that he won’t be there at home plate when Bonds comes around after breaking his record.

Even during the All-Star game—televised from AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants and their big-headed slugger Barry Bonds—when the talk naturally turned to Bonds, the allegations of performance enhancers and the grand jury testimony, the crew in the booth charged with providing commentary didn’t provide much at all. In fact, as the conversation became more pointed with comments about the impact of steroids on baseball, the Commissioner’s apparent decision not to be in attendance as Bonds draws near, and the possibility that Bonds had broken the rules of the Game, they quickly backed off, shifting to a non-confrontational, “institutional message”. They talked about of “the culture” of the Game, the fact that there was no way of knowing who did what and when and then fell back to the old standby: Bonds was a Hall of Fame player even before he did whatever he did.

It seems to me that blaming the “culture,” the “media,” the pernicious “influence” of ESPN or the specter of corporate America—perhaps epitomized by Halliburton, Blackwater or even The Wiffle Ball, Inc.—is a pretty convenient copout. Especially when we’ve had players like Jason Giambi making cryptic almost-apologies, gaining massive amounts of “bulk” only to loose it, along with his power hitting production, and then blame the loss on curbing his fast food habit. And then bam! — he’s hitting again, packing on the bulk and making even more cryptic remarks that have landed him in front of congressional sub-committees. Clearly it was the burgers and fries that packed it onto his neck, hips and backside. And if it wasn’t the burgers it must have been the prevailing culture in baseball.

This “blame-something-that-is-nameless-and-faceless” attitude affords people the opportunity for righteous indignation without having to take a meaningful position.

Bonds had the ability, perhaps the greatest natural ability in 50 years, but it was the “system” that made him cheat, and so that’s ok, it’s overlookable. We disassociate him with his actions. But these arguments ignore the facts, responsibility, fairness, and the rules of a game.

To blame a “system,” especially in the context of baseball, is a fairly thin argument in my mind. We’re not thinking about a life or death situation, we’re talking about playing a game. The fact that so much money is at stake muddies the water, but not so much as so you can’t see the bottom. I simply don’t see this as an ambiguous issue. This isn’t a “stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family” argument about morality, despite the fact that it’s devolved into the murk of moral relativism. This is a fairly cut and dried example of cheating.

Cheating alters the complexion of the Game, compromising its integrity. What makes sport different from “real life” is the controlled environment and near complete meritocracy. Everyone plays by the same rules, yet some are simply more talented than others. Because Jordan could fly and Bird could shoot didn’t mean that they should have been made to wear leg and arm weights. They had to go out and play with the same rules as everyone else. They were just better. And they were expected to live by certain rules off the court. In many respects, because they were superstars, they were held to an even higher standard.

In baseball you can’t use a corked bat or a glove with stitching colored to hide the ball. Betting on the game or taking a gamblers’ money in a bribe has been a cardinal sin in the Game since the Black Sox scandal. And right now, the use of performance-enhancing drugs is simply against the rules, giving some players an unfair advantage over others. Advantage based on ability, talent and the development of skill is what competitive sports are all about. Advantage gained from a disregard for or breaking of the rules is cheating.

As I stated in my original essay and in my subsequent posts, just because we’ll never know who did what and when, doesn’t mean that when someone is caught, they shouldn’t be punished—or at least called on it.

Perhaps it’s easier to pin responsibility on the “culture” rather than the individual. Saying the “system” is what made him do it, letting all the other excuses fall into a twisted conga line behind, might be more palatable, easier to swallow, less confrontational.

But it also means that “we,” the fans and consumers, are abdicating “our” responsibilities as fans and consumers—and that’s a big, steroid-swollen “but.”

Frank J. Colagiovanni ( is an award-winning freelance copywriter and special contributing writer for Bread and Circus.

Leave the Kids (Writers) Alone

by Editors


Leave the Kids (Writers) Alone:

Despite the perception, writing for young readers is serious business

By Erin Dionne, Bread and Circus co-editor

A couple of weeks ago, I received the latest issue of Writer’s Digest in the mail. Ann Brashares, author of the bestselling Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, is on the cover with the headline: “The WD Interview: Ann Brashares Moves Beyond Teen Fiction.”

Recently a friend said to me, “When does Harry Potter stop being a children’s book?”

Another said, “Anyone can write a kid’s book.”

And then a colleague asked, “Why would you choose to write for kids?”

What is it with the perception that writing for children is less worthy of an endeavor than writing for adults? As children’s books become more and more popular with adult readers—especially young adult titles such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (and its sequel, New Moon, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 45 weeks) or the Harry Potter series—one would think that the depth and quality of these books would change public perception, but that doesn’t seem the case. If anything, the attitude seems to be going in the opposite direction…as more children’s books achieve mainstream popularity, the more the genre and its authors are bullied.

Contemporary writers for children can recount a litany of slights. Deborah Davis, author of Not Like You (Clarion), My Brother Has AIDS (Atheneum), and The Secret of the Seal (Crown), sums most of these tales up:

I have been asked if I think I’ll ever write for adults, as if then my work might be given serious consideration. And I’ve heard, so many times, “Oh, I’ve got an idea for a children’s book that I’m going to write as soon as I can find the time”–as if all it takes is a little time and inclination, maybe a few weeks over the summer, a project to be squeezed between jobs. I never hear people say to a writer of books for adults, “I’m going to write my novel, too, when I have a few weeks to spare.” There’s an assumption that writing for young people takes less time, less blood, sweat, and tears, maybe even less intelligence than works for adults. I think this is a huge and unfortunate misconception.

Even Judy Blume, one of the pioneers of the YA genre, 2004 recipient of an honorary National Book Award for contributions to American letters, is not above such criticism. On her first title for adults she says, “When Wifey was published some people thought I would never write another children’s book, some thought I had written a real book at last…”

So where do the misconception and bullying come from? Why do people think that writing a children’s book is easier, or takes less skill, than writing for adults? Is it the shorter length? The illustrations? The age of the main characters? The age of the readers?

I think one of the main factors at work is the intended audience.

Most adults perceive children as being unsophisticated and incapable of following a complicated story—ergo, the novels written for them must be simplistic. While it’s true that complex critical thinking skills develop over time, and what’s understandable for a preschooler is certainly different for a middle schooler, the vast majority of junior high aged readers can follow the twists and turns of a complicated plot if they are drawn in to the story. Harry Potter, of course, comes to mind. The plot traverses (soon to be) seven books and multiple characters, holding the rapt attention of the Playstation Generation. But perhaps J.K. Rowling’s creation, and the eighteen wheelers filled with books, midnight release parties, and Pentagon-level security, isn’t the best defender of the children’s market. After all, it has blown the genre conventions to smithereens.

E.B. White, regular contributor to The New Yorker, and author of children’s classics such as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan might be a better champion for the complexities of children’s titles. His books deal with life and death, responsibility and protection, and finding one’s way in a hard-to-navigate world—not exactly child’s play. In a 1969 interview with The Paris Review, he explained, “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick and generally congenial readers on earth.” But even he might not be the best champ—his books were published at a different time, when slick marketing, colorful packaging, and “edgy” content weren’t the norm. Contemporary critics rail against the Gossip Girls series, citing them as “fluff” or “trash,” depending on the reviewer’s angle. And those YA novels are leaps—and decades–away from White’s quiet middle grade stories about barn animals and mouse-boy adventures. However, aren’t there “fluffy” and “trashy” titles on the adult shelves, too?

John Green, author of the 2006 Printz-winning Looking for Alaska and the Printz honor book An Abundance of Katherines, might have the best answer to critics of the genre. In his July 12 interview on, he says,

Almost everyone who dismisses contemporary teen literature hasn’t read much of it. So it doesn’t bother me at all, really. I wish people would read more of the ambitious YA novels being published right now, but I also wish people would read more of the ambitious adult novels being published right now.

Maybe that’s what it comes down to—ignorance of what’s available for young people to read–and it’s only by experiencing the wonderful, innovative, heartbreaking work of contemporary writers for children that the perception will start to change.

I admit that I’m biased. I write for middle grade, or “tween,” readers—the 9-12 age bracket. When my colleague asked why I chose that group (and, to be fair, she’s not the only one who’s asked—just the most recent) my response was along the lines of “because that’s the voice I gravitate towards,” or “those are the stories I have to tell,” both of which are true. However, the part I didn’t say, that’s harder to explain, are the feelings of joy and passion that books generate in readers of that age. Many kids dive into novels, bringing characters to life outside the boundaries of the story in a way that few adults have the time, inclination, imagination, or attention to do in their own reading. Kids stuff beloved titles under their pillows, carry them around in their backpacks, knock them into the tub or cover them in dirt on the playground. As a writer, it’s a privilege to engage that type of reader—one who loves their book to a worn, spine-cracked mess, who allows the story to share space with his or her daily life.

Maybe one day the demeaning questions to children’s book writers will stop, or we’ll wake up and agree that all writing, regardless of audience, genre, or style, takes intense effort on behalf of the author, but I don’t think so. In the meantime, bring on the bullies. We can take ’em.


Erin Dionne, co-editor of Bread and Circus, is the author of the forthcoming novel Beauty Binge from Dial Books for Young Readers. Available in spring 2009.

The Return of the Equal Rights Amendment

by Editors


The Return of the Equal Rights Amendment

By Sarah Katherine Mergel, Bread and Circus contributing writer

Back in April, as I was preparing to teach a class on the women’s movement in the Sixties and Seventies, a colleaguWOMEN'S SUFFRAGE DAY IN FOUNTAIN SQUARE, 08/1973e asked if I had heard that the Equal Rights Amendment had resurfaced in Congress. (I, of course, had not). Apparently on March 27, 2007, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (NY) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (MA) introduced the Women’s Equality Amendment (H.J. Res. 40/S.J. Res. 10). Section 1 declares “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Section 2 gives Congress the power to enforce the provisions of the amendment. Both mirrored the wording of the original ERA. The House and Senate subsequently referred the proposed amendment to their respective judiciary committees where no further action has been taken. Should Congress vote in favor of sending the WEA to the states, ratification by three more states might make it the next amendment to the Constitution. (See note 1 below)

When the ERA sailed through both houses of Congress in 1972 it seemed to members of the women’s rights movement that their long-hard fought for equality would soon be made easier-the states were sure to ratify it. Few expected that the amendment would be undone by other women, but it was. As grassroots campaigns emerged in key states, legislators began to withdraw their support. After ten years the ERA failed to receive backing by enough states to add it to the Constitution. Public opinion polls at the time suggested that a majority of Americans supported equal rights making the amendments defeat all the more confusing to members of the women’s rights movement.

The Democratic sponsors of the “new” amendment hope that the time has come to move forward with gender equality. Proponents have reintroduced the measure before, but now feel they have a better chance at getting the two-thirds votes necessary to see it move back to the states. Opponents still maintain that the amendment will add nothing to the present laws of the country and remain confident that no additional states will ratify the amendment. Given that the Women’s Equality Amendment is likely to spark some heated debate when and if Congress votes on it, I thought it might be a good time to look at both the history of the amendment and its relationship more generally to the women’s rights movement.

In the nineteenth century, the feminist movement began to advocate for the political equality of women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and other women sought to make their political voice heard. Women tried to demonstrate they could move beyond their roles as good wives and mothers although they had little success in securing voting rights. These early feminists passed the torch to Alice Paul whose experience with the more radical women’s rights movement in England caused her to take a more aggressive approach in pushing for suffrage. Members of the National Women’s Party risked respectability to garner women’s rights. Paul’s favorite tactic was to picket the White House. The move was especially effective during World War I when Woodrow Wilson had turned the war into a crusade for democracy. Once Wilson agreed to support the suffrage cause, Congress voted in favor of the 19th amendment and the states quickly ratified it.

While Paul and the NWP fought for suffrage other women during the progressive era had different goals-primarily better working conditions. Members of the progressive movement, like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley thought protective legislation would bring moral uplift to the working class. Working class women, although somewhat concerned about potential financial impact of the proposed legislation, came to support laws that would improve their working conditions and limit their hours. They also saw protective legislation as a substitute for union activity (which the heads of the largest unions often excluded them from).

Protective legislation caused a rift among women in the women’s movement. Working class women supported suffrage, but feared the Equal Rights Amendment proposed by Paul in 1923. The amendment, they thought, would bring an end to protective legislation because it would make women and men equal in the eyes of management. The hours men were expected to work, women too would have to work. Working class women in the 1920s could not actually conceive of a time when industry would agree to reduced hours for all workers. (See note 2).

While Congress seemed reluctant to support the ERA, the number of women in the workforce increased in the 1920s because the decade’s consumerism. Vacuum cleaners and automobiles cost money-money that a one-wage earner family could not afford so more middle-class women sought jobs. They often took white-collar service related positions. During the Great Depression fewer women worked, but that could be said of men too. However as soon as the nation began to mobilize for war in the 1940s the rate of single and married women in the work force rose steadily.Government poster World War II era Working women pushed for equal pay for equal work, but the war’s end lessened their bargaining power in the workplace. In the 1950s even more middle-class and college educated women joined the workforce. At the same time, married women began to experience changes in their home life. As relationships became more reciprocal, some married women began to wonder why they had accepted the traditional role for so long.

Much to the dismay of women’s rights advocates, John F. Kennedy did not endorse the ERA in his 1960 platform-he was the first Democratic candidate not to do so since 1944. Once in office, he appointed a commission to study the status of women. Women’s rights advocates, especially the NWP, could not prevent the administration from stacking the commission with members who opposed the ERA. It came as no surprise then to members of the NWP when the commission suggested that an equal rights amendment was not necessary (at least not necessary in the early 1960s). The introduction of the Equal Pay Bill, which passed through Congress in 1963, followed on the heels of the commission’s work. The Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau had been a strong supported of the ideas represented in the bill since 1945; however, the NWP thought the bill merely distracted from the more important goal of securing the passage of the ERA. The bill had flaws, but it did commit the government to the cause of ending gender discrimination. A year later Title VII of the Civil Rights Bill prohibited gender discrimination in the workplace. Regardless of how it got into the bill, the women’s rights movement saw it as another step towards equality.

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique proved to be the spark that ignited the new, more aggressive, women’s movement in the late 1960s. The founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966 provided a place for women from various backgrounds to join in the fight for women’s equality. Longtime feminists joined with members of the labor movement in a common cause-something that had been hard to do in the past. The new organization gave women a collective identity, which for longtime activists seemed an important step to achieving the goal of equality for women. NOW added its support to the ERA, at the urging of Alice Paul, and quickly became the most vocal proponent of the measure (much to the NWP’s dismay). However, what seemed to be more important in the ultimate Congressional acceptance of the ERA was Title VII. The Civil Rights Act undermined protective legislation. Women associated with the labor movement felt they could finally support ERA-the Women’s Bureau endorsed it for the first time in 1970.

Just as NOW brought together women who supported the ERA, a grass roots movement of women opposing the ERA emerged in the early 1970s. Phyllis Schlafly, who led the STOP ERA campaign, had shown no interest in the ERA until 1971 when she was asked to debate the issue. Schlafly and her followers successfully raised doubts about what the amendment might do ultimately slowing down its momentum. As much as it appeared in 1972 that a majority of the population supported equal rights, the US in 1972 was a different place than it had been several years before when NOW was founded. The social, cultural, and political upheavals of the 1960s caused some Americans to rethink the country’s post-WWII commitment to liberalism. The New Right of the 1970s used the ERA as just one of the ways to demonstrate how liberalism had run amok. Support for the ERA decreased in the 1970s. By 1980, the Republican Party felt comfortable refusing to endorse the amendment. By 1982 it became clear that proponents of ERA could not garner enough support to secure ratification.

The thing that most people forget about the women’s rights movement is that even members of the movement have not always been on the same page about what constitutes the best course of action for promoting women’s interests. Middle and upper-class women had different goals than working class women even before women gained the right to vote. Even women in the same class did not agree on the question of voting rights. For example, Julia Ward Howe concluded that suffrage increase the dignity of women, but Emily P. Bissell thought giving women the right to vote was a reform against nature. (See note 3) The same was true for the ERA. Members of NOW assumed that no woman in her right mind would oppose equality, but the STOP ERA campaign proved otherwise. Moreover, although labor supported the ERA after Title VII there was still some concern that the amendment would harm working-class women. Myra Wolfgang, a leader in the labor movement, recognized discrimination in the workplace as a real problem; however, she did not think the ERA would solve the problem because it was too sweeping. (See note 4)

So where does this little review of the history of the women’s movement and ERA leave us? First, I think, it remains important to recognize that the question of gender discrimination and equal rights is complicated and there is more to the debate than just being for or against the ERA. Just because someone-man or women-does not support the ERA, does not mean they are for gender discrimination. Second, even without an ERA women have made progress towards equality. Title VII may not be perfect, but it is something. As a Ph.D. student I worked part-time in retail unloading new merchandise off incoming trucks. I never sensed any hesitation by my co-workers to throw heavy boxes my way-and to think fifty years ago I probably would not have gotten the job.

The debate over the ERA is likely to continue in the future, whether it passes this time or not. If it does not proponents of gender equality will find new ways to fight; if it does the government and the courts will begin debates on how to enforce the law. So as you look to the future of this important question, remember it has a past, too.

Sarah Katherine Mergel, Ph.D., specializes in American political and intellectual history since the Civil War. Her primary area of research is the rise of modern conservatism and its effects on political developments, cultural trends, social issues, and international relations.
Notes–[1] The courts will ultimately determine whether the states that originally ratified the ERA will have to vote again. Some legal scholars think that the original votes are valid because the Madison Amendment affecting congressional pay raises became the 27th amendment after 203 years. See Juliet Eilperin, “New Drive Afoot to Pass Equal Rights Amendment,” Washington Post, March 27, 2007, A01,[2] Only the crisis of unemployment in the Great Depression forced employers to accept the standard eight-hour day.[3] Julia Ward Howe, “The Case for Woman Suffrage,” Outlook (April 3, 1900); Emily P. Bissell, “A Talk to Women on the Suffrage Question,” in Selected Articles on Woman Suffrage, 3rdst Congress, 2nd session, May 6, 1970.Images– (Top) Women’s Suffrage Day in Fountain Square, August 1973. EPA photograph by Tom Hibbard in the collection of the NAtional Archives and Records Administration; (Below) US. Government Poster, Office for Emergency Management, World War II era.For More Information–
edition, (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1916).[4] Myra Wolfgang, Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Committee on the Judiciary, 91

  • Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: The History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (1982)
  • Elizabeth Pleck, “Failed Strategies, Renewed Hope,” in Rights of Passage: The Past and Future of the ERA edited by Joan Hoff-Wilson (1986)
  • Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor, Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women’s Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s (1987).