an appreciation and defense of Cindy Sherman's "Society" photos

By Travis McFlynn

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #466
At the speed of light we calculate and record the world through our tastes and fears. If this is perception, do we ever truly see things as they are? Taste might subtly sway how we take in what we perceive; fear certainly distorts our understanding of the world. Our brains are like a surging neuro-chemical cocktail caught in a self-centered and baffling tangle of assumptions, judgments, and, of course, again, fears. This ‘auto-judgment-mode’ syndrome happens without even a pause for a second thought and this is why truism, received wisdom and convention rule the day, like an audio track on endless repeat. It’s hard to account for the cumulative and degrading force this type of narrow thinking has on our cultural life, but you can be sure that it is at the root of all kinds of prejudicial behavior—against different races, sexual practices, religions and even the aged. We want to believe that the world around us is static, fixed and predictable, but that’s because we can’t stand for it not to be and aging is the surest sign that what we want we cannot have.

Cindy Sherman knows how we think and she knows what we think of women, and especially old women. In “Society,” her recent series of photographs of art patrons and society matrons, Sherman goes on an annihilating attack against our ready made perceptions of these wealthy, aged women and seeks to obliterate the snap judgments and cookie cutter nihilism of some of our most cherished stereotypes. It’s a daring assault and would be both self-serving and cruel if not for Sherman’s clear desire to give her subjects, these ridiculous old women, a divine sense of grace and will. In many of the photographs they seem to descend from the heavens to render their judgments upon our world. In doing so, she allows them once more to be the source of light and inspiration that the culture so ruthlessly demands of them when they are young and so ruthlessly strips them of when they age.
©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #465
Sherman focuses on elite socialite wealth, those who have the money to age like they want. What’s stunning about the pictures, especially in their museum setting, is that the subjects seem as if they just hopped from reality into art. Go to any museum or major gallery and you can see these women running around, making pronouncements and demanding that we see them. Sherman makes us see them in double. We can look at them on the walls and then watch them in real life. We laugh at their expensive outfits like the spangly blue mumu of “Untitled #466,” the helmet hair perfectly coiffed of “Untitled #474” and the strapless gown of “Untitled #465.” They all reek of a misapplied sexiness and it’s all an embarrassment, both in real life and the photos. At first glance, Sherman seems to confirm all our prejudices, all that we hate about these women, but look again and you’ll see an understanding depiction of the fragility of power and a stunning representation of grace overridden by emotion. Sherman catches the lack of control and ferocity of these society types and it’s a stunning insight, an advance in our understanding of both pure power and what happens when power ages and it’s a woman. The results are beautiful and we should be so lucky to feel and live as deeply as Sherman’s silly old women.

Silliness and crassness are precisely the point and Sherman’s trap. Most viewers find immediate faults and reasons to dislike, trash and slander the work. They either hate the subjects, the old women, or hate Sherman’s representation of them. I’ll admit that it’s hard to enjoy such misguided gracelessness, but to dismiss it is to miss what we can’t bear to see in our own culture and what’s right in front of us or even next to us looking at Sherman’s work—you can almost feel the fear that the photos elicit and the difficulty of responding to work that allows for no easy place to stand. Sherman knows that these women are no mere victims, that they are bullies as well, and that the two states are in a constant state of entropy. Treat them poorly and we cry foul, but lionize them and we want to tear them down.
©Cindy Sherman/Untitled#474
Sherman does both, challenging any sense of virtue that we might harbor about ourselves. We look at these huge portraits of fading life and enter a complex web of relationships. If they are bullies and victims, then we are one more: bully, victim and collaborator. Sherman frames the way we frame our identity and forces us to relate to a group of women most of us laugh at. She knows that they seem far, far away from what we might consider the robust and normal world. But when we look at this set of portraits, we are no longer at a safe remove and she forces us to come to terms with a new, or better put, hidden reality. It is at that moment that we get that the true subject of these photographs and that is our own fragile relationship with power and the feminine. These photos call us into question and we are humbled because our responses are so crass. As this shift happens, the veil of the grotesque lifts and where we once saw the ridiculous (too much makeup, plastic surgery, haute couture and arrogance) we now see radiant beauty. Look at these women again and they are suddenly desirable. They glow with a radically transformed fecundity that they have supposedly lost to age. Sherman effectively spotlights the enormity of the courage, strengths and grace these women possess and their triumph in facing an aged body with a steely determination and a sad, knowing eye. In most Sherman photographs you’re never far from her eyes and here they are looking at us and daring us and imploring us to look again.
©Cindy Sherman/Untitled#466
Both as the viewer and the viewed, Sherman exposes the cracks in how we perceive. These portraits unlock one of the deepest fears of our collective psyche: the nature of creation and its decline. These women know everything and they haven’t given up or in. That’s one of the reasons they suffer our scorn and, in turn, we fear their power. Picasso said that “if we truly knew what art was we would use it to heal ourselves.” In that vein, Sherman is striking the very chords that resonate deep within the hurt and making us see where the healing might begin. If you don’t like these photographs, well, you should look at them again and you might see them unmake themselves. When we change, so will our visual environment, our imaginations and our desires. This is not a grand utopian ideal requiring technology that we haven’t thought of or will take years to develop. No, it’s right there in Cindy Sherman’s work and its demand for the full realization of our imagination and a strange but new kind of humanity.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #458

Photo Information:

1. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #465, 2008; chromogenic color print; 63 3/4 x 57 1/4"
(161.9 x 145.4 cm); courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; © 2012 Cindy

2. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #466, 2008; chromogenic color print; 8' 6" x 70"
(259.1 x 177.8 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the generosity
of Robert B. Menschel in honor of Jerry I. Speyer;©2012 Cindy Sherman

3. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #474, 2008; chromogenic color print; 7' 6 3/4" x 60"
(230.5 x 152.4 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor. Michael Lynne, Charles Heilbronn, and the Carol and David Appel
Family Fund; ©2012 Cindy Sherman

4. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #458, 2007-08; chromogenic color print; 6' 5 3/8" x 58 1/4"
(196.5 x 148cm); courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

©CCA Arts Review and Travis McFlynn

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