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Issue No. 18 - Humanity

An Unlikely Conversation with Cindy Sherman

 
 
 

Cindy Sherman

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When Cindy Sherman’s career emerged in the 70s, photography was still largely considered inextricably bound to the molecular structures of the physical world, i.e., incapable of anything but mindless chemical repetition. It was, therefore, barred from realms of critical and generative genius out of which real art was born. Sherman fixed her camera on herself and set loose a vast collection of imagined perspectives, a deft unfurling of seemingly infinite subjectivity, an endless series of hypotheticals, that offered incisive social critique of a kind painting had never approached.  Sherman’s photographs are amalgamations of scattered pieces and locations— wigs, garments, prosthetics, highways, kitchens, opulent gardens— which are brought together to form singular instances of a subject. These instances imply particular yet evasive histories, desires, and intentions. For all their vivid theatricality there is a pervasive silence cast by the distance, often blankness, of her subjects’ expressions. They suggest rather than expound a narrative. There is always a gap in meaning, which it is incumbent upon the viewer to fill.

Sherman works from intuition rather than attempting to churn out illustrations of theory. Her childhood was spent dressing up and it is this instinctive trajectory that she follows to this day, without attempting to cloak her work in dense textual explanations. However, it was inevitable that the images she created would seriously engage cultural theorists, and be of particular interest to feminism. Since the Second Wave bristled through history we have been waiting patiently for the glass ceiling to finally shatter. Myths of intrinsic inequality between the sexes, and of the idealized/vilified feminine had, after all, both been exhaustively revealed as too irrational to be sustained. Sherman’s work made an invaluable contribution to such revelations. The fact that thirty years later we are still waiting makes it pertinent to consider her work in this context.

The following ‘conversation’ is, like photography, a fiction created from a particular framing and arrangement of ‘real-life’ fragments. Drawn from a wide variety of sources, these pieces attempt to construct a loosely spun narrative that might offer potential for new perspectives on one of the most significant photographic careers of western history.  This found-and-spliced dialogue with Sherman includes excerpts from writings and interviews with Linda Nochlin, Mira Schor, Susan Sontag and Janet Wolff.

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In a renowned 1971 essay, art historian Linda Nochlin posed the question, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" She has been a leading figure in the development of feminist art history.

Mira Schor is a painter and writer who has, in both media, deeply considered the role of painting in contemporary art as well as the position of women in the history of art.

During her life Susan Sontag made invaluable contributions to culture, in terms of both analysis and production. Major works include On Photography, Against Interpretation, and Regarding the Pain of Others.

Janet Wolff is Professor Emirata at the University of Manchester. She has researched and written extensively on art, gender, culture, modernism and aesthetics.

Linda Nochlin  I think women have changed the course of art and art history enormously, and—whatever anyone wants to say—it is much better for women artists today than thirty years ago. Part of the reason has to do with the nature of postmodernism and its rejection of a so-called 'canon' or 'canonicity' of certain modernist ideas. The new premises of postmodernism permit a much less absolute and superior kind of both production and interpretation.[1]

Cindy Sherman  I'm still really competitive when it comes to, I guess, the male painters and male artists. People think because it's photography it's not worth as much, and because it's a woman artist, you're still not getting as much – there's still definitely that happening.[2]

Susan Sontag  From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects. Painting never had so imperial a scope. The subsequent industrialization of camera technology only carried out a promise inherent in photography from its very beginning: to democratize all experiences by translating them into images.[3]

Cindy Sherman  There's a theory that there were so many women photographers at the time because we felt nobody else was doing it. We couldn't or didn't really want to go into the male-dominated painting world, so since there weren't any artists who were using photographs, we thought, 'Well, yeah, let's just play with that.'[4]

Mira Schor  These days it's hard to distinguish the work you see on the premise of gender, perhaps precisely because one of the things that were historically so significant about the feminist art that was done in the 1970s was that it opened the door to content, techniques, and materials that were not allowed into fine art during the high period of modernism.[5]

LN  Women and other marginalized groups that enter history do not simply substitute for white male authority; they change the whole paradigm. Instead of occupying the position of heroes, they bring new premises into art.[6]

SS  I do think seeing the world photographically is the great leveler. [7]

 

Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing—which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art—it is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.[8]

 

CS  Sometimes I’m awestruck by how little I look like myself and say “wow, that is so not me.” But I do feel empowered by the spooky thing that is happening.[9]

SS  Denying that art is mere expression, the newer myth, ours, rather relates art to the mind's need or capacity for self-estrangement.[10]

CS  I really don’t think that the photographs are about me. It’s maybe about me maybe not wanting to be me and wanting to be all these other characters. Or at least try them on.[11]

LN  At least in the United States, the improvement of the position of women is mainly a result of political and art activism as well as the increased consciousness of women. This has led to the actual change in the power structures, and, consequently, to the change of what constitutes valid art and art practices. In contemporary art there is, for instance, a huge emphasis on the body. The body comprehended from various perspectives is in the forefront, and it is not simply a kind of classical body, or a traditional nude. It is the body through which artists dismantle old schema, and through which the whole agenda of body politics comes up.[12]

JW  There are problems using the female body for feminist ends. Its pre-existing meanings, as sex object, as object of the male gaze, can always prevail and re-appropriate the body, despite the intentions of the woman herself. [13]

CS  The [centerfold] pictures were meant to be disturbing. You were meant to think, “Ah, OK, who's this cutie here?” and then you go, “Oh! I'm sorry!” But I didn't mean it as dogma, and some feminists said “men could look at that and think it's a turn on, she should have a label to explain each piece.” But you can't control how people view your work. Once it's out there, it's out there.[14]

LN  Visuality is never as simple as a gender dichotomy between women and men, and this should be important for a feminist reading of art history as well. I have a number of gay men and lesbian women in my class, and they have yet another set of perspectives to bring to the discussion.[15]

CS  We’re all products of what we want to project to the world. Even people who don’t spend any time, or think they don’t, on preparing themselves for the world out there—I think that ultimately they have for their whole lives groomed themselves to be a certain way, to present a face to the world.[16]

 

 


[1] Linda Nochlin, interview by Marina Pachmanová, “Linda Nochlin: Writing History Otherly,” n.paradoxa 19 (2006): 14.

[2] Cindy Sherman, interviewed by Simon Hattenstone, “Cindy Sherman: Me, myself and I” The Guardian, Saturday 15 January 2011, accessed June 2, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/jan/15/cindy-sherman-interview.

[3] Susan Sontag, On Photography, (New York: Rosetta Books, 2005), 4-5.

[4] Sherman interviewed by Hattenstone, “Cindy Sherman: Me, myself and I”

[5] Mira Schor, interview by Marina Pachmanová, “Mira Schor: Painterly and Critical Pleasures,” n.paradoxa 19 (2006): 68.

[6] Nochlin, interview by Pachmanová, “Linda Nochlin,” 16.

[7] Susan Sontag, interviewed by Evans Chan, “Against Postmodernism, etcetera--A Conversation with Susan Sontag,” July 2010, accessed June 2, 2012. http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/text-only/issue.901/12.1chan.txt.

[8] Sontag, On Photography, 4-5.

[9] Cindy Sherman, interviewed by Simon Scharma, Financial Times, February 3, 2012, accessed June 2, 2012. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/1cec0df6-4d4f-11e1-8741-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1xCS50uEb.

[10] Susan Sontag, 'The Aesthetics of Silence', in Styles of Radical Will (1969; London: Vintage, 1994), 3.

[11] Cindy Sherman, interviewed by Mark Stevens, “How I Made It: Cindy Sherman on Her 'Untitled Film Stills’” New York Magazine, April 7, 2008, accessed June 2, 2012. http://nymag.com/anniversary/40th/culture/45773/.

[12] Nochlin, interview by Pachmanová, “Linda Nochlin,” 15.

[13] Janet Wolff, Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 121.

[14] Sherman interviewed by Hattenstone, “Cindy Sherman: Me, myself and I”

[15] Nochlin, interview by Pachmanová, “Linda Nochlin,” 18.

[16] Cindy Sherman, interviewed by Mark Stevens, “How I Made It: Cindy Sherman on Her 'Untitled Film Stills’”

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