Cindy Sherman, Feminist Artist?

We have been taught to look at Cindy Sherman in art history classes and textbooks as a Feminist Artist, but I was curious to look into this deeper. I spent a day last week researching articles and interviews with/about her and found intriguing information that has lead me to believe she is not a Feminist artist. I wanted to share this with the class, so that they could tell me their opinions and thoughts, and continue to think critically about her.

Let us look at the Untitled Film Stills that granted Sherman her initial fame and title as a ‘feminist artist.’ First off, all of the women are the objects of some unseen person’s gaze.  As viewers, we take part in looking at her in this same way. We do not identify with her, but take part in the act that men have done for hundreds of years, and we participate in this gaze. We have learned in introductory courses about the male gaze in art. According to Ways of Seeing, by John Berger:

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

In the Untitled Film Stills, we are judging the women, looking at them as sexual objects, or vulnerable to the presence of the man, and it is Cindy Sherman that invites us to do so.

Next, I think it is important to look at whether Cindy Sherman is inviting us to share in this gaze in a means to critique gender performance, postmodern subjectivity, and theories about the male gaze, or something else. Looking at interviews with her, there are an abundance of interviews and quotations to be found of Sherman denying that there was any feminist statement behind the Untitled Film Stills. When asked the question, “Critics like to discuss the male gaze and the objectification of women in relation to your work. Did you think about that stuff?“ Sherman responded, “I was totally unaware of that” (“How I Made it.” By Mark Stevens in NY Magazine on April 18 2008). On another occasion she said, “I wonder if maybe it’s all a lot of crap. Maybe the work doesn’t mean anything. When they’re writing about it, they’re just finding whatever to attach their theories to. I just happen to illustrate some theories” (“Cindy Sherman: From Dream Girl to Nightmare” by Glenn Hefland). Furthermore, “Sherman herself insists that, while her work is drawn upon her particular experience of womanhood, she is not a feminist and has no political agenda” (“A Woman of Parts: Interview with Cindy Sherman.” By Noriko Fuku in Art in America). If Sherman is not presenting her characters in a way in which we are supposed to critique the objectification of women in media and images, then she is contributing to the problem.

Since the feminist art movement of the 1970s, many artists have used their own bodies as a way to explore objectifications of women in art and mass media. However, we now know that Sherman is not doing this intentionally, so this should change our opinion of the way we understand her artwork. Does it not make more sense that her artwork is reinforcing the fantasy of the insecure vulnerable woman, and playing into the hands of the male-dominated art institution? What makes her art different than any image in a magazine or painting? Isn’t Cindy Sherman’s art doing exactly what feminists are so eagerly protesting, and contributing to the pile of objectified women imagery?

Another point made in The Standpoint of Art/Criticism is that “One wonders if Sherman is so often celebrated as a feminist artist because she is a woman who presumes to act and make art like a privileged man!” In some ways, the fact that Sherman is able to partake in activities that only men could do previously is a way to celebrate how far women have come. The fact that her work is selling for millions of dollars makes Sherman an example of the place that women artists are now able to get to. However, I believe that at the same time this adds to the problem.

If a woman is successful because she is acting like a man then this only shows that feminists are supporting artwork that looks just like the art made by men for centuries. Her art has made it to the top, because it is subjecting women to the same ways that men have done. Other women such as Barbara Kruger have made art that specifically is addressing the issues that feminist critics attribute to Sherman’s work, but it is not as successful. Does this show that art can only be successful if it subjects women to stereotypes? To be clearer, to be feminist because you make art like privileged men do then you are approving those qualities that make the men’s art the issue in the first place.


One Response

  1. This was a well written essay. I thought is was extremely informative and a correct interpretation of Sherman’s work and what she represents as an artist. She does create a dichotomy of artistic expression and plays a role as an activist toward this issues of femininity that is displayed through her staged photographs. She has subjectively placed women into question through the influence of the male gaze and the social construction of the ideal image. It places women with the stereotype of the venerable other, which ultimately challenges the perspective of the individual. I was impressed with this approach of what this artist is representing with her work and your opinions with what Sherman is impelling through the visual experience she is creating.

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