James Franco Just Tried to Appropriate The Female Experience

by kelsey haight

James Franco is a white, heterosexual, wealthy, educated male. He is a multifaceted artist and has loads of talent that he spreads to many, many projects. He has received endless accolades and awards for his creative efforts and shows that actors can have substance and are a wealth of ideas and thoughts. However, he is a super privileged dude who just defaced one of my favorite female artists.

When I first heard about James Franco’s opening at PACE Gallery I was super intrigued and kind of skeptical. He had delivered a speech at my school and had everyone in a tizzy about how cool he was. That was also the same day Franco admitted to hitting on a 17-year-old girl…which was probably just a publicity stunt to get people hyped for this opening. 

So, when I learned that Franco’s exhibit also featured him embodying Cindy Sherman’s photo series Untitled Film Stills in drag I felt really, really angry. His photo series is entitled New Film Stills but there is nothing new or interesting about his misguided appropriation of Sherman’s work.  I was confused about his ideology, I didn’t understand how it fit in with the rest of his exhibit, and I absolutely did not think this project paid respectful homage to Cindy Sherman’s work or the art of drag. 

Franco told Hintmag, “Cindy Sherman’s groundbreaking series Untitled Film Stills showed us how we look at ourselves in film. But Sherman was an artist looking at the film industry from the outside. I have started on the inside. This new series of film stills puts one more frame around the dialogue Sherman introduced.” First of all, Sherman was exploring the illusion of identity, and questioned what was presented. Franco simply dabbles in different forms on a whim, whereas Sherman lived the experience she portrayed. Also, if Franco was so into this ‘character’ why did he keep his facial hair? I find his half-assed attempt really insulting.

So Franco, you are not a woman and have no idea how revolutionary Sherman’s exploration of identity was! I feel as though his exploration of her work almost devalues it because of his privilege. Of course he CAN appropriate her work, but should he? This also makes me question his statement that, “drag is very liberating.” Franco went on to say, “We’re all just putting on costumes and playing our parts. It’s nice to play other parts than what’s expected.” But because of Franco’s status within the industry, he can comfortably shed and gain parts at his leisure.

According to Art In America Magazine, Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills broke the million-dollar mark at auction; Untitled Film Still #28 (1979) sold at Christie’s New York in November 2007 for $1.2 million. Another Sherman photograph, from 1981, sold for $3.9 million at Christie’s New York in May 2011. Franco’s photos come in editions of three or 10; prices range from $6,000 to $15,000. That’s a pretty penny for being so unoriginal and boooooring. 

I will give Franco props for having some sort of self-awareness. Franco goes on to say, “I am fully embedded in Hollywood, but these photos allow me to take a step to the side, look back, and refashion the work I do in Hollywood. I am at the same time actor, critic, artist, and character.” I hope that Franco learned how much he doesn’t belong in these photos, and his effort is totally wasted on anyone with a historical context for Sherman’s work. It must be noted that Sherman did attend the opening and allegedly told Franco that she liked the work, a pretty broad and open-ended response. I wish I could be as polite as Sherman, but alas I am outraged and not interested in cutting Franco any slack. Head over here to see some artists who appropriated Sherman’s work with much more taste and insight.

Images Courtesy of James Francos Instagram, PACE, and Cindy Sherman

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