With Green Lantern: Mosaic #1, the comics narrative was visually laid out beside the narrative of the advertisements. Like the medium, this comic maintains the conceit that there is a line differentiating between the artistic narrative and the commercial narrative. The two narratives share a cover, but you do not visually see Hamner’s John Stewart playing basketball with the basketball advertisement, or see the rocket from the rocket advertisement fly with John Stewart. There is a distinction. This distinction does not exist in Michael Ray Charles’s (Forever Free) Dress Your Best. In this work from his series, the art is an advertisement.
Charles has a minstrel character modeling a shirt for sale. We know this is a white actor in blackface not only from the red hair, but the minstrel “uniform” he is attired in black skin, white gloves, and large lips. This is a white man performing as a black man to sell whatever “dress[ing] your best” is. What is that concept? Perhaps it is the whiteness of the shirt being sold, or maybe it is the covering of flesh being advertised as best. Or, just as likely, it is what the minstrel character is not doing that is being sold as best.
The minstrel character is staring forward at the viewer as he is in mid-action putting on a white shirt. His smile and gaze is a frozen mask of the minstrel, but his actions are not. He is not moving in exaggerated motions or making odd faces. There is no outrageous posture or dance moves. The character is performing blackness visually without acting black. The audience knows this is not a Black man, but the ad is selling what is not Blackness -- control, respectability, whiteness. Hence why there needs to be a white actor playing a Black person, it would not visually be transmitted that whiteness is being sold to a Black man.That is what dressing your best is (and has been, given the aged appearance of the artwork). Your best is your whiteness.
This art piece provides a useful commentary on the black body by showing what Blackness has historically (and perhaps presently) means: not white. Charles notes that his advertisement art “ is just as much white as they are black”; the same could be said about all discussions of whiteness or blackness (Art 21). When we distinguish between these two races, whether in fine art like this or in comics’ white and black figures like in Captain Confederacy #4, we are highlighting more similarities than differences.So who is a Black male? In visual arts, every human is a representation. A representation claims not to be what it shows but an image of it. Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is not claiming to be Marilyn Monroe. But Charles notes that concepts like whiteness and blackness are “re-appropriated and re-presented” (ibid). To Charles, the concept of blackness is what is shows -- blackness. It is not represented as being what it is not but is what it is. Perhaps this is where the tension and discomfort of works representing minstrel figures or Black male figures adorned in Confederate flags come from. The figures will always be representations, but the concepts and history behind them are presentations. They are always present.
- Art21. “Advertising and Art: Michael Ray Charles.” Art21, PBS, art21.org/read/michael-ray-charles-advertising-and-art/.