Skip navigation

“The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.”

Cindy Sherman

The quote above is from a Tate Magazine interview of Cindy Sherman, one the most successful American photographers in the history of the medium. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, maybe the world’s most respected arbiter of modern artistic taste, is mounting a retrospective of Sherman’s work beginning on February 26th and running until June 11th. I can dream of making it to Manhattan to see this show, but it’s pretty unlikely. I’ll have to enjoy Cindy as I always do; in the pages of books and/or on 22-inch LCD monitor.

Sherman’s iconic status as an artist is well-deserved for it’s pure honesty. Her Untitled Film Stills series, her first and (in my opinion) most enduring work, casts Sherman herself as a second-rate movie actress in black and white images of various fauxmovie sets. Critics have said that these images are offered as commentary on gender roles  as understood in the late 1970s, when most of that series was created. I’m prepared to take these critics at face value but I find it interesting that observers are all over the map on what her intent might have been.

Untitled Film Still #7 (Cindy Sherman, 1978)

A lot of critics brand these images as self-portraits which they are clearly not. They are scenes of fantasy in which Sherman acts has her own model, which is something quite different. As she would if she had used another model, she was creating a scene not to reflect the life or personality of the subject but to illuminate something within her imagination. This is about as far from a self-portrait as you can get.

Untitled Film Still (Cindy Sherman, 1979)

I find it strange, too, that many of the feminists who claim Sherman’s work don’t clearly understand the feminist implications of it. It lacks the bitterness of a lot of feminist art and I think that it’s better for it. Like the rest of us, Sherman is responding to the world as she’s experienced it without, apparently, purposely  writing a lot of hyperbolic subtext into it. She doesn’t even title her work, setting the viewer free to experience it in a way that’s relevant to them. It succeeds by not trying to hard, avoiding the failing of a lot of artistic work done with an eye toward some kind of social or political agenda.

Sherman apparently understands something that a lot of people don’t; these roles we’re so quick to analyze and denigrate were imposed on all of us. No one asked me if I wanted to all the baggage associated with being a white male baby boomer, just like no one gets to choose to be black or female or beautiful or ugly or nerdy or autistic or to have any of the thousands of characteristics that “society” uses to categorize and control us (as if “society” is a thinking, feeling, organic thing, a “person” in the same way that the Supreme Court has decided corporations are people).

The key to enlightenment isn’t being pissed off, nor can anger inform analytical judgement. Anger is a barrier, not an asset. Sherman’s work says to me that she understands this. That’s why I love Cindy Sherman.

Untitled Film Still #13 (Cindy Sherman, 1978)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: