Gotham Diary:
31 May 2012

At MoMA last week, I picked up a copy of The Complete Untitled Film Stills, because I’ve liked this work by Cindy Sherman ever since it was new, even though I found the women that Sherman impersonated to be unattractive and sullen, and I can’t say that I really like any individual photograph. What I do like is the fragmentary suggestion of complete movies that I am free to create and re-create as effortlessly as I please. In this, the Film Stills remind me of Edward Gorey’s The Awdrey-Gore Legacy (so thrilling, when it was new, because one had never seen Gorey do color before — just as Sherman’s stills were in a gloriously dated black-and-white). Gorey’s book is like a board game discovered in an attic, missing important pieces as well as a set of instructions. You make what you can of it.

I did not buy the catalogue accompanying the Sherman retrospective, though. I knew that I would never look at it. There are a couple of images that I would like to have as postcards, all three of them featuring New York City backgrounds (two at the Cloisters, one at the Bethesda Fountain). All three feature women who appear to be rich and powerful, however ravaged by time; their contempt is complacent, if not content. As such, they differ from the run of portraits and other images in the show, which display every kind of wretchedness. I would never look at Sherman’s clowns, or her sexually compromised girls, or her parodies of Old Master paintings. These pieces are almost too immediately not interesting; I must be afraid of them as well. If I were drawn to them, I would find out eventually what it is that I feared.  

That’s the point, I concluded. It’s a test: can you be happy with the fact that these pictures have been mounted on the walls of an important museum? Can you take an interest in their exhibition? It was a test that I failed, at least in several galleries that I could not wait to exit. At the same time, I protested (to myself) that Sherman wasn’t telling me a thing I didn’t know. About shock. About self-display. About the yearning to be found gloriously, miraculously, and, against all the evidence, beautiful — a yearning entwined with a venomous determination to deny its gratification. Cindy Sherman’s recent work appears to be about unsuccessful responses to the problem of ageing, but what I see, as I wrote the other day, is “the misery of a plain, somewhat doughy adolescent girl whose brains were of no interest to anybody. (Least of all to herself.)”

At the same time, Sherman lays out an interesting challenge: where’s the male equivalent of this show? Where is the man who would flay his complicated identity as Sherman has done? And is there a call for such a demonstration? If nothing else, Sherman’s pictures shout to tell us that women are obliged to be unpleasant in order to be heard; if  they are not unpleasant, they’re catnip, and whatever it is that they have to say is baffled and silenced. Is there a masculine correlative of this oppression? I believe that there is; the manly version of Sherman’s show that I conjecture would concern itself with failure: the failure to perform, the failure to fit in, the failure to lead, the failure to be memorable. It is not clear to me how self-portraiture would be involved, but it would be involved; there is no other way to file Sherman’s report on degrading shame. I suspect that it would also make use, as Sherman has done, of the image factory’s tropes of cinematic glamor and advertised allure.

In the New York Review of Books, Sanford Schwartz writes, “But then Sherman’s work is engaging no matter what we think of it as art.” There’s the muddle. What does thinking of something as art entail? The question has bedeviled me ever since Sherman and her cohort of conceptual artists set out to replace disegno with critique. Before that, Duchamp’s fountain and the other sports of Dada were impish tricks, subverting nothing but the art-admirer’s pouter-pigeon posture. Conceptual artists have produced objects that work like texts, that mean to tell us something, but without being readily legible. I think of them, these objects, as icons of a civilization that the artist, in any case, cannot bear to understand. When I look at the grotesquely large panels of Cindy Sherman, I see someone confronting an awful world in which genuine kindness does not exist. I am sorry that she has had to go there.