Cindy Sherman, American Photographer and Artist, born 1954 in Long Island, New York, Arts Graduate 1976. Sherman’s subject matter whilst always feminine, includes discourses on film stills, magazine centrefolds, fashion spreads, advertising, children’s literature, formal portraiture, historical records, mannequins and the monstrous body. Sherman’s work spans a 25 year period, making her one of the most successful and talked about female artists of the post-modern era. Indeed there is a plethora of academic and critical thought that has been written on her productions. Her work has been analysed and psycho-analysed ad infinitum. It is interesting to note, much to the dismay of varying parties, that Sherman refuses to comment on her work – even to the fullest extent where she refuses to give them a name, referring to her productions as Untitled.
I believe this is in part due to Sherman’s desire to have the observer read the image – to interpret meaning and apply their own cultural signifiers, therein possibly unveiling elements of themselves previously unexposed and hidden within their own psyche. Her carefully constructed productions can be likened to theatrical masterpieces in their own right. Her work has an uncanny ability to return the gaze back to the viewer – to leave the viewer mesmerised – unsure of themselves and their interpretation of these representations.
Her productions force the observer to identify with their own meaning. On meaning, Hall writes, “Meaning does not inhere in things, in the world. It is constructed, produced. It is the result of a signifying practice – a practice that produces meaning, that makes thing mean” (Hall, Pg 66). Marco Meneguzzo writes of Sherman “Where the construction of the image leaves more space or the possibility of narration to the observer…” (Meneguzzo Pg 12). Sherman’s career can be seen as one of growth and maturation in which she has managed to destabilise and deconstruct the phallocentric gaze of the symbolic other, challenging historical patriarchal discourses associated with that other…
Sherman controls the production by manipulating the phallocentric gaze – covertly undermining and challenging patriarchal notions that work in binary cohesion with the foundation stones of our culture. It is the masculine system of representation that has formulated and driven the western art cannon since time immemorial. Mulvey writes ” Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning….. The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies….
Sherman is anything but the castrated woman in her work – she holds the power by implying another meaning, creating a double construct whereby she becomes the “maker of meaning” (Mulvey). It is this aspect which most disturbs the viewer. Meneguzzo writes on Sherman’s Film Stills “It would be an absolutely banal affirmation to say that Sherman’s work exalts the fakeness of her pieces, and so general that it wouldn’t be enough to explain the sense of detachment and subtle queerness that one experiences in front of these images….” (Meneguzzo, Pg 11).
Sherman’s Monstrous Bodies have undoubtedly shaken and challenged the notion of the male gaze. Her work deconstructs the female body from an abstract, removed position by the use of prosthesis, plastic parts and body fluids, becoming her own narrator or maker of meaning. In doing this, she shifts the power from the patriarchal by totally deconstructing and then rebuilding the feminine representation. These representations are no longer easily read by the phallocentric gaze and are provided in direct contrast to established notions of that gaze.
Berger writes that the “ideal” spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him… (Berger, 1972). Berger further writes that men have always had privileged access to the sight of the female body, that it is not purely for the male spectator’s enjoyment but that it is also connected to a sense of power and control over the image. “The woman’s body is posed and framed for him, while his own body remains doubly hidden” (Betterton, Pg 11).
“In psychoanalytic discourse, fetishism is a uniquely male perversion” (Grosz, Pg 141). Freud writes “The fetishism remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it. It also saves the fetishist from becoming a homosexual by endowing women with the characteristic which makes them tolerable as sexual objects… What other men have to woo and make exertions for can be had by the fetishist with no trouble at all (Freud, 1927:154).
With Sherman’s History Portraits, she takes a new look at the masters, those that would define the western art cannon. She undermines the reverence and political might these masters hold by providing the observer with a new deconstructed image. Danto writes “Sherman in the end, had a lot of fun putting on false noses and preposterous whiskers, improbable eyebrows and false breasts, all at the expense of the old masters and their terribly serious subjects…
Sherman has done something startling and strange, draining the old masters and their subjects at once of a certain power, by showing the artifice, the convention, the transparent fakeness of the worlds they believed were solid, unshakeable and real….What would we be without our make-up, our hair-dos, our robes, our scholarly paraphernalia, our jewellery, our breasts – or our portraits? What is the human reality behind the revealed grotesqueness of our appearances’socrates writes that the principles of comedy and tragedy are one, so that the artist who writes comedy could as well write tragedy…Sherman in these comical pieces of visual philosophy “writes” both at once” (Danto, Pg 13).
In summary, Sherman manages to destabilise the familiar codes of female iconography by the use of masquerade, displacement of subject/object and oustanding technical ability. My personal view is that along with these things, she is also intuitively aware of cultural frameworks within which we all find ourselves being judged by and adhering to and it these codes or representations that she seeks to redefine – she becomes the narrator/author/power holder.
Chris Weedon writes “poststructuralism’s concern with the discursive construction of subjectivity, with the role of social institutions and the heterogeneous forms of power governing social relations is motivated by a primary concern with understanding the position of individual women in society and the ways in which they are both governed by and resist specific forms of power. This involves not a devaluing of women’s experience but an understanding of its constitution and its strategic position within the broader field of patriarchial power relations” (Weddon, Pg 74).