Skip navigation

Tag Archives: museum of modern art

“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)

There’s a bit of a dust-up in the fine art blogosphere over Occupy Museums!, an offshoot of OWS that wants to, as they say, reclaim art from the cultural elites and return it to the 99%. Their targets: the Museum of Modern Art and the New Museum, both in New York. They staged protests on Thursday that you could hardly consider widely reported, but they’re nonetheless significant, although I haven’t quite decided why just yet.

Paddy Johnson, the driving force behind the influential blog Art Fag City, has been kind enough to put the miscreants’ manifesto up on her tumblr site. I read Johnson’s blog frequently and I like it a lot. I would place her firmly on the side of the upstarts behind the protests, just as I would put sites like Artinfo, the source of the first link above,  firmly on firmly on the side of the art establishment that’s being rebelled against.

Occupy Museums Organizer Noah Fischer (from - uncredited)

The protesters have a valid point, I suppose. The Art World (the capitalized one) really is dominated by money and the inflated egos of those who have a lot of it, while the lower-case art world, the one I inhabit, the one for the rest of us, exists below that high-dollar glass ceiling. I’m not sure it’s ever been otherwise. What has come to be known as “Fine Art” has always been the playground of the rich and famous. The argument that it’s worse today than it’s been in the past  may hold water but I’m not in a position to know that.

The Museum of Modern Art is a reasonable target for the collective outrage of the “people’s artists,” I suppose. It began as a vanity project for a trio of wealthy society women in 1929, mere days after the horrendous stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, more or less punctuating the distance between those who open art museums and those who don’t.  Against this backdrop, it’s pretty hard to argue that the domination of the Art World by rich people is a recent phenomenon. MOMA has always been in the business of choosing winners and losers in the art market by selecting some artist for inclusion and rejecting others, and the board of trustees, which is made up mostly of the leisure-class rich, are going to want to show the same stuff they buy. It’s an incestuous little circle and it always has been.

Whatever public service MOMA provides by making great art available to the public isn’t wiped out by the cost of admission which, at $25 a head, is a pretty substantial barrier to the masses. (They offer free admission on Fridays after 4 pm, courtesy of Target Corporation, which gives us poor folk 4 hours a week to view some great art.) It isn’t wiped out by the fact that a lot of what they seem to be championing is utter garbage because, on balance, their collection is phenomenal.  Regardless, MOMA represents modern art as sorted out by the marketplace, and the marketplace is mainly inhabited by the top 1% that OWS and its offspring are complaining about.

I don’t know much  about their other target, the New Museum, but $12 admission seems like a bargain, all things considered.

I’m conflicted about this protest, more so than I usually am about street protests in general. Certainly, they got very little media attention. The criticism that the protest is made up mostly of disgruntled artists throwing a collective bitch-fit because they’ve been pissed on by Capital A Art may have some merit, but that doesn’t mean the whole thing ought to be dismissed out of hand.There’s some truth to the assertion that the international museum/gallery/art fair scene is nothing more than an orgy of cultural/financial self-indulgence for rich people and those few artists lucky enough to be afforded the opportunity to act as their trained circus monkeys. There’s also some truth to the assertion that a lot of artists are producing great work in poverty and obscurity simply because they haven’t been adopted by the right people. Conversely, a lot of the art hanging in MOMA actually IS great and I’m glad that I don’t have to break into a Rockefeller’s mansion to see it.

What neither side of this question seems to be able to tell me is why I should care one way or the other, or why the issue should be elevated to this level of public debate. I can’t seem to equate 300 million Americans being robbed blind by Wall Street with some investment banker paying $25 million for some God-Awful Damien Hirst dead-animal-in-formaldehyde creation or a vapid Warhol soup can. The “temples of cultural elitism” aren’t throwing people out of their homes or sending their jobs overseas.

I only started enjoying my art when I stopped worrying about whether or not it would make me rich and famous. If you’re creating art for money, I would argue that you’re not creating art in the first place. Let the MOMA trustees wallow in their greed and good fortune. I’ll visit their museum, take in what is meaningful to me, and leave the rest.