Social media is intoxicated with the images of Cindy Sherman. The famed photographer recently made her private Instagram account public, and people are going crazy because she’s using filters and apps to produce versions of her trademark self-portraits as characters. In a little under a week, her account has amassed close to 90,000 followers and thousands of likes per post. Plenty of breathless news reports have followed, too. “All Hail Cindy Sherman’s New Public Instagram Account” wrote W Magazine; “Cindy Sherman’s Instagram Account May Be the Best Art Exhibit in 2017,” read a headline at Salon; the New York Times called Sherman making her account public “an act of generosity.” New York magazine critic and longtime Sherman fan Jerry Saltz has penned probably the most tepid response I’ve seen so far on social media, writing on Facebook that Sherman is simply “killing it.” (Where is the paragraphs-long, praise-heaping feature we’ve come to expect from Saltz?)
As evidenced above, there’s a nearly unanimous critical agreement that everything Sherman produces belongs in the hallowed halls of art history. This kind of consensus always makes me suspicious. It is often a result of a trend becoming more influential than the craft itself — in this case, nearly a decade of Pictures Generation artists’ popularity, paired with Sherman’s own unique set of now-friendly qualities. She is image-savvy and self aware, but also earnest and political without being overtly so. She’s a feminist, but has so much money invested in her work that she can be so in pretty much any way she pleases without antagonizing old male collectors. In short, she has both the history of the market and the trends of today at her back, and this is helping to generate a cacophony of praise.
So just what are the Instagram images that are making a splash? Picture the most predictable and cliché versions of Sherman’s work, and you’re looking at her Instagram feed. In these images, which she began posting in May (originally under the handle @misterfriedas_mom, which she changed to @_cindysherman_ when she went public), the artist uglifies her features with apps like Facetune, which allows users to reshape facial features, and Perfect365, a virtual makeup kit that touts empowerment through glamour. In these works, she’ll give herself a large chin, or comically weathered skin — not the kind of empowerment the developers of either app were envisioning for their users, but it probably counts as such. The artist’s willingness to transform her face into largely unattractive characters suggests she’s not beholden to preconceived ideas about how women should present themselves.
And yet, on Instagram, she frequently posts images portraying hackneyed identity constructions. You’ve seen the characters Sherman plays before because they’re archetypes — often stereotypes — built from class and identity tropes. The feed includes a series of beggars you might see in an animated Disney film; monied women wearing so much makeup and who’ve had so much plastic surgery they look like nightmarish clowns; a grandma goth-cum-Burner; a mean philanthropist type; a new age housewife — you get the picture(s).
Those constructions aren’t inherently bad. The problem is that most of these portraits don’t look like finished works and if they are, they aren’t very good. They simply don’t have the attention to detail required to take the works beyond mere character studies — a common problem in Sherman’s weakest work, and entirely absent in her best.
A few exceptions exist. In a closeup image of Sherman wearing caked-on blue eyeliner, drawn-in black eyelashes, and a red plastic wig that appears to have been digitally overlaid to frame her face, there’s a subtle confusion of what’s real and what’s constructed that seems to comment directly on identity in the age of social media. It’s a good piece. Also strong is a bizarre image in which Sherman poses with her pet macaw. In this image, the bird sticks its beak directly into her ear while she tilts her head away. The background has been shifted into a gray scale, while she and the macaw remain colorized — her eyes and lips made cartoonishly large. Her expression suggests resignation to the bird’s intrusion. Here, humorously, Sherman resembles a 50-something teenager.
The macaw image works precisely because it’s more responsive to the medium of Instagram: a mix of the personal and professional material that we might not see in more polished works. But the two images mentioned above are outliers among many more images that look underdeveloped. As such, the gushing reactions these images have elicited feel a little like what I’d expect to see if we were suddenly given access to a stash of previously unreleased Prince songs that sounded similar to his biggest hits. People are understandably excited because we know that the artist is great, and assume the same must be true about the new material — in part because it seems so similar to work we’ve already determined is good. But there hasn’t been enough time to think about it to really know.
When I look and think about Sherman’s Instagram images for longer, though, I don’t reach the conclusion many others have — to paraphrase, that they’re all awesome works of genius. In fact, they don’t make me think about much at all. What is there to say about a photo of a woman with fish-like eyes? Not much. As per usual, Sherman has transformed herself, but there’s no grand insight that comes from selfies altered with a couple of apps.
And that’s fine. As a platform for experimentation and play, Instagram is pretty great for artists at all levels of the game. But l don’t want to describe this as more than it is. It’s not an exhibition, these aren’t masterworks, and we definitely don’t need to hail Sherman’s selfies.