While I was in San Francisco, I had the awesome good fortune of catching the Cindy Sherman exhibit at SFMoMA. I am not super knowledgeable about visual art, and aside from a few photographs at the Chicago’s MCA, I’d never seen much of Sherman’s work.
I was absolutely blown away by the entire thing. And while it would be impossible to recreate Sherman’s visual language in words, the exhibit did make me reflect on some things that I thought were worth sharing.
In most of her work, Sherman is both the photographer and the model — she appears in hundreds of different photographs in hundreds of different guises. Costumes, wigs, makeup, lighting, setting, and photographic technique can transform her from a blonde bombshell to a downtrodden housewife to a schizophrenic to an aging heiress. It’s quite jaw-dropping when you look at all the photographs and realize it’s the same woman.
In my life experience as a woman, appearance and self-presentation have been very important. When I go to a party, teach private lessons, or go onstage for a performance of some edgy piece of music, I’m in different “costumes” that communicate my identity to the people around me. And it isn’t always easy to get the costume right. Sometimes, in fact, one gets censored for getting the costume wrong (too slutty, too frumpy, too conservative, too young, too old). So for me, Sherman is an incredible powerful feminist voice. For starters, she emphasizes the flexibility of identity. She lays bare the fact that presenting yourself is not about essence — it’s all about work. Selection of clothes, makeup, pose, setting — her artistic process bears an uncomfortable resemblance to what some women do in front of their bathroom mirrors virtually every day. She’s a veritable shape-shifter, and her viewers have very different emotional reactions to each “look” she assumes.
But Sherman’s photographs resonated with me in another way, too. Because in some ways, each of us who ventures into the “creative marketplace” has to be a shape-shifter, too. We are constantly negotiating between our true artistic desires (whatever those might be) and the needs of the people who are willing to pay. You want us to play the powdered-wig stuff? We can do that — we won’t scare you with any of that “contemporary” stuff. You want us to act like a rock band? We can do that too — we’re not stodgy classical musicians! And after all the marketing, spinning, and “targeting” is done, you have to look in the mirror and be sure you still know who you really are.
I wish you luck with that.