American Culture

Is the Danny Evans/Planet Hiltron celebrity make under project promoting classism or combating it?

When I first saw this story on NY artist Danny Evans’s Celebrities Make Under project, my first reaction was…well, let me quote my Facebook comment directly:

Oh, this…I mean…gods, no. They…WTF?!

To summarize, Evans has used the magic of Photoshop to “normalize” (my word, not his) some of our artificially beautiful celebrities. “It was a reaction to the insanely over-retouched photos of celebrities that are everywhere,” he says, and if you live in the US, it’s impossible for you not to recognize what he’s talking about.

I did a little analysis on this phenomenon back in 2008, so once I stopped laughing at the pictures, I got to thinking that maybe this is a wonderful way to perhaps make people more aware of the ways in which technology and media are messing with their minds.

I figured out a long time ago, even before I began encountering grad-level feminist critiques, that our media’s stylized construction and portrayal of female beauty was problematic. It’s bad enough that unattractive people don’t appear in movies, on TV or in magazines unless the narrative expressly requires someone unattractive, and sometimes even that isn’t enough. I mean, the star of Ugly Betty isn’t really ugly.

But it goes beyond this. It’s not just that we’re only shown pretty people. It’s not just that we fetishize youth and beauty in all things. It’s that we have now passed the point when natural beauty suffices.

My initial take on Evans was that his celebrity makeunder was interesting and potentially useful culturally.

Then a couple of friends raised an issue in a Facebook exchange. The first was Rori Black, who was one of the co-founders here at S&R, and the second was Kelly Bearden, a colleague over at 5280 Lens Mafia. Both are as sharp as they come, and their reaction to the project went to the core of how we treat and read class.

Rori’s comment suggested that adding some sweat stains and a few extra pounds tells us more about the artist’s view of “normal” than it does anything. Kelly agreed. While this is certainly a valid observation, I wondered if maybe it missed the artist’s intent.

I see it as a bit of cultural warfare. Technology is so routinely used to transform normal looking people into something so perfect that it can’t really exist. Even better than the real thing, if you’re a U2 fan, and more human than human if you prefer White Zombie. It has a nasty, corrosive effect on society, especially where women’s self-image is concerned (to say nothing of what it does to men’s expectations of female appearance). So in this light, I think what is going on is an artist using technology in the reverse direction, seeking to “take back” some normalcy. Yes, he’s gone downscale, from a socioeconomic perspective, so I guess you’d characterize it as exaggerating to make a point.

If you read my 2008 article, you’ll see that I’m very sensitive to the gender image issue, both as it affects women and men.

Kelly’s reply got to the heart of the matter:

i know where you are coming from with this, and that the artist has stated that this was his intention, but there is something still rubbing me the wrong way about making everyone look like they came out of an ’80s trailer park and calling that ordinary. it seems very classist. but maybe that’s just me.

Absolutely. In the Evans vision, normal tends to look pretty downscale, socioeconomically speaking.

But… The thing is that with a number of these celebs, I responded, he’s not taking them to the trailer park so much as he’s taking them BACK to the trailer park. If I were his publicity hack, I’d be saying that Evans is actually removing the classism, because the original use of the imaging technology to artificially beautify these folks stripped their class from the picture. That was a large part of the point, in fact – to make them look less trailer park or ‘hood, depending on their race. I’d argue that the celebs and their handlers were the ones being classist by denying who they are, implicitly validating the idea that one can’t be beautiful and appropriately famous until the working class has been hidden. In that context, what the artist is doing is actually combating classism.

I know, this is a subtle, nuanced double-reverse point, but there is no argument that the engines of fame and beauty are using Photoshop to upscale their subjects.

Kelly doesn’t think Evans pulls it off, though.

ok – i see that, and again, i get it. i just think that the artist in question did not fulfill the promise of this concept. this is great in concept, but the execution of the idea is not fulfilled to the extent that i would have hoped it would have been. because all i see is photoshopped attempts to lower the status of someone famous, and to make that lowering = trailer park, lower socioeconomic status, etc, all i get from this is a exploitative “look at what i did to these people who think they are so much better than us because they are famous!” vibe. if the artist was better at this, i wouldn’t that this was a smug sneering way of sticking it to the rich and famous as well as the lower socioeconomic classes. honestly, i think the artist was lazy and let the concept get way ahead of the execution.

I’m sympathetic to her argument. Evans uses working class tropes to haul people off their pedestals, and if anybody is sensitive to class issues, it’s me. I grew up in the rural working class South and was writing just last week about the challenges you face trying to make a better life for yourself if you grew up on the wrong side of the cultural tracks.

It’s a fascinating question, and one that runs much deeper than I imagine a lot of people reading the article today realize.

Thanks to Kelly and Rori for raising the issue and insisting on a little deeper consideration.

5 replies »

  1. i still contend that the ideas that are being presented by the artist are much more interesting than the finished product. i think he has been inordinately cruel in his depictions of the rich and famous AND of the lower economic class that he is using to depict them as “ordinary”. it still feels sneering and smug, and displays a reverse elitism that annoys me greatly. this could have been a very interesting project, but by portraying everyone as fat, sweat-stained, bad teethed and 80s dressed, and by photoshopping badly, i feel he let his concept get ahead of him. still my two cents, and everytime i look at it, it continues to rub me the wrong way.

    • I really can’t argue with you, Kelly. Your take on what he’s doing, on its face, is accurate. And I can’t tell you you’re wrong to feel the way you do. I can perhaps speculate and argue, as I did, that there’s something more subtle at work, and since we’re both artists we know that sometimes a guy like Evans might set out to agitate. Hard to say, really, and in the end there is absolutely such a thing as having a great idea and not executing on it very well.

      I think this is a fascinating discussion, honestly. As you know, he’s poking at issues I care a lot about. At the very least, I’d like to hope that the project (and perhaps articles about it, like this one) provoke some thinking on the part of a popular culture that doesn’t think any more than it absolutely has to.

      Many thanks for weighing in and letting me use your comments.

  2. A friend of mine sent me the article yesterday and as i was looking through the pictures I got a disturbing feeling. With one exception, none of the celebs looked anything like what I thought they would look like without all the handler’s “improving” on their particular reality. But then it occurred to me that was not what he was doing. He was creating caricatures at the best, being kinder to those he liked — it appears to me — and, at times devolved into celebrity bashing. Not much more than an elaborate variation of drawing mustaches on pictures. I read the article about 1:15 and had totally lost interest by 5:00 (and I was giving a presentation from 2 to 4) until seeing this post this morning. Perhaps the performance did not fulfill the promise of the concept — what I saw, though, is the concept trying to disguise the mustaches.

    This discussion, however, is far more interesting and insightful than the actual pictures. Thank you for that.