A LETTER TO CINDY SHERMAN from Christopher Stackhouseby Christopher Stackhouse
MUSEUM OF MODERN ART | FEBRUARY 26 – JUNE 11, 2012
I’ve yet to see your show in the Tisch Gallery at MoMA, but I just received an e-mail from a friend with a link to Jed Perl’s review in the New Republic, “The Irredeemably Boring Egotism of Cindy Sherman” (March 14, 2012). In it Perl harshly overstates his point, if he has one that isn’t somehow enmeshed in something personally subtextual but not quite revealed in his vehement response. What immediately struck me as weak criticism is when he writes of your photographs, “When the content, such as it is, goes south, Sherman is sure to be undone by her seigneurial indifference to formal values.” “Seigneurial?” Really? After decades, if not centuries, of artistic attention given to philosophical and theoretical interrogation of what constitutes “formal values,” I find it hard to believe that Perl really believes that a practicing artist with your accomplishments is “indifferent” to form, especially form that constitutes your own living flesh. That you continue to use yourself as medium is what seems to anger, if not baffle him. (Maybe Perl is also confused by the medium—he seems able to make sage assessments in the fields of art he genuinely favors, particularly painting.)
What Perl calls your “indifferences to formal values” aren’t indifferences at all—they are conscious, direct contaminations of the gaze. Your photographs carry as signature incessant disharmony. They generally project consistent formal decisions that serve the subject and content of the photos. Some of the images are unpleasant, and I would say many convey more than subtle misandry in negative relief. Perhaps that’s what he’s responding to in your overall body of work that gives his review such bite—you know, being a man can suck, too, he might as well have said. Further, when he states, “The only works of [yours] with a genuine poetic spark are the small, black-and-white Untitled Film Stills [you] did between 1977 and 1980, and this is because the controlled format gives [your] playacting some underlying structure…” I felt like he should have just come out and said, “Cindy Sherman in her 20s was kinda’ hot.” That would have been a more honest starting point from which to assess the trajectory of your production, in terms of formal means, variable content, and your work’s comprehensive engine.
In plain language I think Perl “gets it,” at least part of it, noting for his readers that you have “insinuated [yourself] into the museums by dressing [yourself] in a shopping mall’s worth of middlebrow iconography—[as] the whore, the housewife, the waif, the clown, the porn star, the prom queen, the wallflower, the romance-novel princess.” If you add the words up he sounds sexist: “foxy,” “tramp,” “tragedienne,” “hometown heroine,” “over-the-hill matrons,” “desiccated society matrons.” After all of that, Perl, in wordsmith-like manner, says you have become “a victim of the very clichés [you] embrace.” If you are a “victim,” I suppose his acridity pitches him a sadist. Even if your artistic powers are waning, even if your work has some built-in limitations, Perl still misses this point (in a very male, egotistical, boring dick-in-hand kind of way): that many of your pictures have served to give voice to facets of more than a few women’s complex view of themselves, reflected in/refracted through an excessively male-dominated society that tends to cast women into one dimensional characters, “either/or” rather than “both/and” and more. I feel like your work made fun of the fantastical projections of male insecurity that tend to want to control or mitigate the independence of women. You took an assertive position to a willful irrationality, an acceptance of the absurd that gave permission to anyone (man or woman or child) paying attention to be so, too.
Perl seems to hate theory, to loathe the import of extensive philosophical study in relation to plastic art, identity politics, or anything that smacks of, for his tastes, a too extra-formal assessment of visual art. That’s okay. He’s a student of Eurocentric conservatism that tends to look back with some anxiety at the canonical lining of spoon-fed scholarship. He’s an American with Continental tastes and pioneering spirit. He doesn’t seem to take into account that all creative production is dependent on, takes its cues from, echoes, and responds to societal/social/cultural influence. Art is interdependent on art and people. Not all great art is hermetic; some of it has a specific audience (however large or small) with intent that surpasses a treatment of pure aesthetic symmetry. In some of the greatest art ever made, the makers had their hand pushed at one point or another by external demands or exigencies of intrinsic obsession. You, Cindy, are no more self-obsessed than he is.
Finally, what’s really disappointing about Perl’s poor display of critical acumen leveled at this survey of your art is the unrestrained condescension that accompanies it. There’s no address toward photography, cinema, cultural studies, or women’s politics. There’s no engagement with any one particular work of art he might have seen. His very near ad hominem attack is barely disguised by an expressed disdain for the system that supports the work. Critiquing the mechanisms of an art world is, I think, a necessary thing. Choosing one artist (you, in this case) as a proxy target for discontent with the greater powers that be is cowardly.
So, congratulations on the latest installation of your oeuvre. Best wishes to your curatorial collaborator, Eva Respini, as well. I look forward to seeing what you all have been up to. And one last thing: you must know, after three-plus decades subverting our perception of beauty, and humorously corrupting your own, the content of your art has yet to “go south.”