Cindy Sherman: Against Photography


Cindy Sherman. Untitled #466. 2008. Chromogenic color print, 8' 1 1/8 x 63 15/16" (246.7 x 162.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Robert B. Menschel in honor of Jerry I. Speyer. © 2011 Cindy Sherman

Since one critic has already deemed Cindy Sherman “the successor to Cézanne, Picasso, Pollock and Warhol,” I feel I am free to delve into other things. The headline to his preview panegyric was The Last Star, so one of these days I will have to write a pithy essay explaining why we don’t need any more stars, thank you; and the last great artist is me. The need for heroes or heroines is perennial, even in something as pure and as uplifting as art.

Upon the occasion of the must-see retrospective now at MoMA until June 11, another critic announces that Sherman’s career is the first of a woman artist that resembles those of Picasso, Johns and Bruce Nauman.

However, I will go all out and say that Sherman’s 2008 “Society Lady Portraits” are as good as, if not better than, her career-making “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-80). She has avoided the male slump, which I define as the usual decline of male “upstarts” who are inspired and then should be retired. But no names here; you can fill in the blanks.


This Is Not A Photograph

I will also boldly assert that Sherman is not a photographer, and her works are not photography. She is an artist. Stuck in the sausage of language, if you call yourself a ceramist, a woodworker, a glassblower, a weaver, or a photographer, you are not an artist. It must be a slip of the tongue or false modesty when Sherman calls herself a photographer. This may still work when potters humbly call themselves potters, implying that their calling is higher than art, but it works for little else.

Sherman’s “photographs” are against photography. They require interpretation.

Take a look at them now at MoMA. Although under the aegis of the Photography Department, and co-curated by an associate and an assistant curator of same, Sherman’s works are being shown in the 6th floor galleries, usually devoted to much higher forms of art than photography.

Likewise, along with location and manner of display, I learned yet another way of judging art. Rather slow about such things, I came upon a piece on Sherman on Bloomberg News:

Shortly after a major Cindy Sherman retrospective opens at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on Feb. 26, one of her most famous images will be sold at Sotheby’s. The combination could boost her prices after last year’s career high auction total of $13.7 million.

In a nutshell, some track annual auction sales totals of various artists, for investment potential, I would guess, and not just for the fun of it. Mind you, unless you are Damien Hirst who auctioned off his own work in 2008, artists usually do not directly profit by auction sales of their art. Not in New York City. The merchandise is usually sent to the gavel by other hands and the profit returns to same.

Missing: How does Sherman’s projected annual auction sales figure of $13.7 million compare with those of others we might know? Hirst? Jeff Koons? Or photographers like Nan Goldin or Annie Leibovitz ?

But there’s another reason besides her annual auction figure that Sherman’s work cannot be photography. Be honest. Do her images give you that good-old photo feeling? Decidedly not. They will not make you weep for the poor or give you false information about the indigenous peoples of the world. They will not cause you to wax nostalgic about families, ancient resorts, or puppies. They will not afford the frisson of images of sexual outlaws, soldiers on battlefields, literary giants, or skate-boarders. They will not make you confuse pictures with reality.



If photography is a disease, than Sherman is the cure. Her work is homeopathic. It is sly. She does not preach, the way so many photographers find themselves doing. No deep captions give add-on meanings to her images.  She is not producing a sub-set of literature or illustration.

And she is not producing self-portraits. In some sense, every artwork is a self-portrait, but for Sherman using herself as a model is merely a convenience. She is always there. She does not fret or object. She works cheaply, and for long hours. If the viewer, despite the artist’s protestations in interview after interview, persists in seeing the works as self-portraits, then a great deal is lost. The message becomes trivial. Sherman is myriad. So what. Aren’t we all? Walt Whitman said it first.

What is more interesting is that under all the make-up, costuming, and prosthetics we still recognize her, in image after image. She is the star of those Noir and Neo-Realist films we can never exactly identify. Later she is the model, the clown, the matron. She is each of the carnival giants on the wallpaper mural  that provides the required photo-op at the entrance to the exhibit.   She is the actress who never quite disappears.  Nevertheless….


It’s Not All About Me

Beginning with the brilliant, black and white “stills,”  Sherman’s influence has been enormous, which is usually another sign of greatness. Media critique and gender politics were instantly enriched. She has been an inspiration to other artists. Her work has been copied, riffed, mimicked, extrapolated, but never quite enlarged upon. Although we see her face lurking in almost every made-up image, not one of her descendants has inscribed loss of identity or pseudo-empowerment the way she has. Men may be crazy, but womankind is all mythed up.

Does she parody femininity by using the Max Factor disguises that many women feel they still have to don? When my mother, who had lived through the Depression and World War II, wore make-up, she called it putting on her war paint, once a not uncommon phrase. But men wear disguises too. And I don’t just mean just facial hair or the eye-liner affected by rock stars. Both men and women wear roles, are sometimes oppressed by them, but also play with them. I can be a soldier, a doctor, an auto-mechanic, a banker…..oh, no. It’s the Village People!

Of course, some boys dress up as girls, but that is another story. That merely balances out all the girls who dress up as guys.

But women are expected to be in disguise. Men like them that way. And women claim that glamor is power. The Max Factor Factor is not a trivial trope.

Sherman is recording impersonations, roles, fantasies. And at the same time getting over her girl-guilt about dressing up and play-acting.


Another Artopia Motto

To the degree that Sherman’s work parodies photographic genres, like Hollywood publicity stills, fashion photography, pornography, and most recently and most gloriously, the aging but perfectly coiffed and facially altered grande dames of her Society Portraits series, her art is against photography. When she parodies well-known paintings, she is slamming the photography-imitates-art genre. But — oh, yes — most photography imitates art and little else. Just as photographs originally tried to imitate paintings, digital imaging now tries to imitate photography. Sherman now works digitally, an even more intense way of framing photography.

Sherman’s images are wantonly conceptual. You cannot look at Sherman’s viscous oeuvre without thinking of the Artopia motto: Photography is the mother of all lies.


To sample John Perreault’s  sand paintings you may preview  online the Kauai Museum/Naropa University catalog for Mark Van Wagner and John Perreault: Drawing from Sand, with a short essay by art critic Peter Frank.  Click  Here.  The exhibition ran from Nov. 12 to Jan. 20 in Lihue, HI. It will travel to the Lincoln Gallery, Naropa University, Boulder, CO., opening March 16; thence to Gallery 125, Bellport, N.Y., from June 23 to July 15.

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