ZOË RICE: I have a problem with the word “sellout,” in part because I think it negates the possibility of using a commercial outlet for creativity and innovation. I adore the idea of MAC collaborating with Cindy Sherman, and I find it makes me think better of both the artist and the brand. To appreciate the collaboration, I think it’s important first to consider both the difference between “selling” and “branding” and also what MAC represents as a brand. More than most cosmetic lines, MAC values its origins as the go-to product of professional makeup artists (The M-A-C stands for “Make-up Art Cosmetics”). There’s something inherently creative in that world – makeup artists are linked to theater, to the arts, to media and entertainment. They collaborate creatively for a living. That MAC wants to expand its tradition of collaborating with celebrities into the fine arts world strikes quite a chord with me.
Unlike the flashier, more famous music megastars one often sees in MAC ads (a la Lady Gaga), Cindy Sherman has a quieter power. Rather than universal name recognition, her value to the MAC brand lies in her uncanny ability to reinterpret beauty advertising. She is taking a long-established cultural institution and turning it on its head. Her ads aren’t about fixing flaws or pretty adornment. She’s asking viewers to create their own stories via her striking images and the color palettes she’s developed. The most classically Sherman-esque MAC image to me is what this article calls the “overdone doyenne.” Juxtaposed with an expensive-looking fur coat, Sherman’s imagined over-the-hill socialite gazes off in melancholy desperation matched by the almost mad over-application of garish purple lipstick. It’s intriguing, and like all that Sherman does, the photograph leaves you with countless more questions than answers. Her point isn’t necessarily to empower by selling lipstick. To me, she seems to invite mainstream consumers into her captivating storylines (as she does with many of her photographs) and then to encourage them to create ones of their own.
But I can write vaguely coherently about Cindy Sherman’s work because I studied her in a course at Yale. And more recently I was able to see her work at a New York gallery show – the kind that doesn’t travel to museums elsewhere. I’ve had access to her work that most people haven’t. Cindy Sherman shares the same kind of art fame as, say, Chuck Close, which is to say those of us who pay any attention to contemporary art consider her a household name. But most people don’t. By deciding to partner with a mainstream brand – one that advertises in magazines spread far and wide – Sherman has allowed her work to find a whole new audience, and I love that. Even more than the idea of reinterpreting the decades-old institution of beauty advertising, that’s what I find most appealing about her collaboration with MAC. Academics might call it Populist – expanding the reach of fine art past an elite few – but I prefer the term inclusive. Why shouldn’t a teenager flipping through W Magazine discover Cindy Sherman for the first time even if it’s via a commercial ad? That the opportunity exists where it might not have otherwise thrills me.
Innovation, reinterpretation, narration, and inclusivity. Those are the words that jumped to my mind when I learned of the collaboration. Sellout never even came close.