How to Talk about Art: Cindy Sherman Edition

Cindy Sherman, "Untitled #96" (1981), chromogenic color print, 24 x 47 15/16″ (61 x 121.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Carl D. Lobell © 2012 Cindy Sherman

If only you knew how to talk about Cindy Sherman you’d feel better about throwing yourself into the ring with all the art pundits and critics who have been falling over themselves to give kudos to the current MoMA retrospective which covers her 35 year career from when she was good until now.

“This is feminism and Cindy Sherman is their knight in shining tinted moisturizer.”

You’d think it would be easy to talk about Cindy Sherman since the experts who have championed her work for decades have provided so much material. And the show’s been up since February 26, so you’ve all had a chance to get an eyeful of the critics’ latest panegyric ululations.

But the talking points are many and although there’s a consensus— we like her — there’s a lot of hot air circulating around the reasons why. On top of that, there’s not a lot of room, or tolerance, for dissent.

The thing is, we like her so much that we have to say so in hyperbolic gusts. Don’t be stingy now, folks: we think she’s the most famous, most accomplished, most inventive and most popular artist ever to have breathed oxygen. Tack an “arguably” on to the front of all or any of those if you’re willing to back it up, even as we secretly hope we won’t have to. Otherwise, stick to adding “possibly” and then say THEE instead of “the” so that it still sounds like you mean it. Because you have to really mean it.

After that you’ll probably have to get specific.

The Bullet Points

Cindy Sherman, "Untitled" (2010), installation view at The Museum of Modern Art, 2012. © 2012 Cindy Sherman

First things first, I say, dusting off my hands: I’ve written FEMINIST on the blackboard and, for all of you in back, that’s a period after that loaded categorization ‘cuz that’s the end of it. We will not be discussing this anymore, so if you disagree — tough titties. You’ll just have to lie low and snipe from the margins where we can all ignore you.

Say that since her earliest works, she’s lent a “feminist POV” to her seemingly innocent appropriations* of pop iconography. Talk about her depictions of women as though by storyboarding them she’s saved their “tragic” lives. And never mind how pungent with well-aged condescension all of that is. We have no time for real criticism and we’re way too postmodern to accept the obvious fact that we’re judging these fictional women.

Cindy Sherman, "Untitled Film Still #6" (1977), gelatin silver print, 9 7/16 x 6 1/2″ (24 x 16.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Eugene M. Schwartz © 2012 Cindy Sherman

Remember this: women who use themselves as subjects, or who present themselves as objects, or who depict the follies and failures of other women for falling victim to objectification, are all assumed to be feminists. This is largely because irony, in all post Pop Art, is assumed. So you bet your boots that the orange girl, that photo of a charmer lying on the floor, all lit up with dreams and the fire of youth, is NOT objectification; it’s ABOUT objectification. (Psst: Don’t say what it IS; say what it’s ABOUT.)

And those overly made-up “society portraits” are depicting women who we “empathize” with as “victims” of a society with onerous youth and status obsessions and the relentless image marketing that spurs them on. I’m warning you, don’t EVEN go there if you think all that sounds a bit high and mighty. If it seems like some people, particularly rich older ones are getting a pie in their already too cakey faces, well: then you’ve just got it all wrong. This is feminism and Cindy Sherman is their knight in shining tinted moisturizer.

By the way, here’s a bit of fun. After you gas on about how feminist these images are, list Ms. Sherman’s celebrity boyfriends. Everyone does it. It’s not hyprocritical at all. Steve Martin, David Byrne, Robert Longo, Richard Prince.


It is crucial for anyone who talks about Sherman to say that her career has been an exploration of roles and role-playing — gender roles, most centrally, but also social and even existential roles.

Yes, I said existential, but you can just say that her dark period is underrepresented at the MoMA because it’s about aging and bodies and death. You can also note that the horrid, shallow collectors won’t buy those images and that the benighted MoMA went wrong in reflecting that capital-driven sentiment.

BTW, you’re not going to spoil the fun by pointing out that it’s easy as shit to get prosthetic limbs to resonate. Put ‘em anywhere and they scream love and death. Just try it. Pull off a doll leg and stick it in a tree. Sammy Beckett roll over! A few entrails and a plastic vajayjay and we’re knee deep in the absurdity of the human condition.

It’s been very cool lately to state as a fact that Cindy Sherman’s work is performance art and to claim that those who see her as an image-maker, are missing the point. That means that in order to come off as someone who knows how to talk about Sherman, you HAVE to discuss the DIY aspect of her art and tick off a litany of artistic roles that she plays (anything but “photographer”). She’s a screenwriter, playwright, comic, actress, director … fluffer — you name it. Next time I talk about Cindy Sherman, I’m going to say she’s a puppeteer and watch people nod like bobble-head dolls in an earthquake.

Installation view of the exhibition "Cindy Sherman" at The Museum of Modern Art, 2012. © 2012 Cindy Sherman

Move from there to a meta-statement about how her many self-imposed roles echo and transcend the roles that she masks and unmasks in her imaginary “subjects.” Now you’re really talking about art.

Although the later Cindy Shermans are about a subtle as a fry pan across the chops, you are obliged to speak about them as though they were quite clever. Even The New York Times’ esteemed Roberta Smith talks about Sherman “allowing the seams to show” as if these garish pictures were Renaissance puzzles full of innuendo and steeped in mysticism when actually they are broad, flat-footed and downright ideologically lazy.

Cindy Sherman, "Untitled #475" (2008), chromogenic color print, 7′ 2 3/8″ x 71 1/2″ (219.4 x 181.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © 2012 Cindy Sherman

Just keep in mind that you are not allowed to say that. Instead you’re supposed to say, that Sherman builds photos with a sort of wink inside of them — a detail that gives the lie to either her role as manipulator or to the charade that the subject is involved in … act like you’re a real Sherlock Holmes to be spotting these whopping clues.

Sigh. I know it’s getting really exhausting. All this head-nodding while dissent stands all the while before you, a veritable elephant with pajamas on, painted chartreuse and playing In A Godda Da Vita on a squeaky violin.

While you’re praising Sherman’s mischievous subterfuge, say things like “finger on the pulse” and gush about her powers of observation. Gushing will give you a chance to do the very best thing you can ever do while talking about art. Free associate.

This is where you climb up on the back of a certain detail and then you ride out the implications, symbolism and historic connections until your pony drops. Look to Jerry Saltz for the very best free-association skills. Here’s a sample:

“Fashion helps Cindy hide in plain sight; in turn, she plays havoc with fashion. She is our greatest female impersonator… Sherman delights in the mortification of the self, reveling in it like an epicurean at dinner; I see her as a spawn of De Sade and Rabelais, Daumier and Hogarth. Her survivalist instinct and relentless inventiveness make her a modern-day Scheherazade. Sherman’s art is that of someone saving her own life in a mostly male art world, working from deep instinct, ferocious imagination, assertion, self-defense, all while fashioning an elaborate tapestry of grand visors, demon clowns, Beau Brummels, and Valkyries; frazzled club girls, crinolined courtesans, dandies, macaronis, hippie chicks in Hiawatha fringe, Hollywood housewives, and other women fighting for their places in the world. Sherman is a warrior artist—one who has won her battles so decisively that I can’t imagine anyone ever again embarking on a lifetime of self-portraiture without coming up against her.”

This sort of verbal athleticism takes practice (and a whole lot more enthusiasm than most of us are capable of. You should not attempt it unless you’ve sucked down had a few Red Bulls.

The Skinny

Cindy Sherman, "Untitled #264" (1992), chromogenic color print, 50 x 6′ 3″ (127 x 190.5 cm). Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © 2012 Cindy Sherman

Can’t stand the consensus anymore? Hell, me neither.

I’m just going to say it: I love the early 1975-80s Cindy Sherman and dislike most of the rest. This is decidedly NOT COOL. The early stuff is just too pretty for most critics to admit liking very much because we’ve come to fear that loveliness precludes depth: but I’m not afraid of beauty. The film stills and centerfolds are subtle and gorgeously resonant of Hitchcock and that pervasive, never failing sense of feminine self-consciousness, that was such a part of our movie and pop culture experience. They are evocative, in an alarmingly sweet way, of sexual games and impending mystery and even danger … I see them and I think: this is before she decided to pull out all the stops and do flat out slapstick.

Oh well, truth will out. I hope you’re happy. That is not at all how one should talk about Cindy Sherman. Dammit.

Cindy Sherman continues at MoMA (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) until June 11.

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