The Queen is Dead, Long Live the Queen (Gender, Stress, & Subjectivity in the Art of Cindy Sherman)


Cindy Sherman, Untitled  #463  A joke for Dana Barnea: I like this picture a lot because “they” remind me of Syracuse University.

I went to see the blockbuster Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Momo this past week. I can’t say it was fun, but I learned a lot. Later that night, I watched Brüno. I found the connection irresistible.

Cindy Sherman, of course, is famous for photographing herself over and over, casting herself in a by now bewildering array of contemporary (post 1970s, American) female types. There are the film-stills which remind us of “actresses” in B-rate movies that never existed. There’s a fashion series, an Old Masters series, a death-and-decomposition series, prosthetic pornography, clowns, and society ladies. It’s almost always Sherman (99% of the time), dressed up to look like the figure in images of women who exist only as psychological and social archetypes. 

At issue in these pictures is the by now quaint claim that self and subjectivity is just a fiction, the collapse of the real into artifice and imagination. We see the claim made in philosophy, the arts, in academic theory, and now the biological, neurological, and psychological sciences, many of whose proponents have seemed to jump into the new nihilism with considerable gusto. In Sherman’s work, the self is submerged into type and scene. The self is fundamentally staged in each and every image. That’s what you’ll read in most of the literature on Sherman, or at least that’s what I’ve read in the little of the literature I’ve read.

What you won’t find said is the possibility that the notion that “the subject is a fiction” is also a fiction. Indeed, as Roberta Smith wrote in the NYT, “surely that reports of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated” (

In Sherman’s work, we’d find that a re-territorialized subject is to be found not so much “inside” the face as much as “on” the surface of the body. Who then is the subject at large in Sherman’s work? It’s the stressed and straining of the female body under the scopic conditions of later consumer capitalism. Spinoza asked, “What can a body do?” Sherman would seem to ask, “How much can a body take?”

Did I need to go to the museum to know this? Don’t I know this already from reading books or essay about the art?

I’ll confess that most of the thoughts above were sketched out before actually going to see the exhibit. They are based on the little I’ve already read about or seen by Sherman on a more limited scale. So why did I need to go walk all the way down to Moma on a beautiful, sunny day? I think the walk to the museum, and the physical presence before the pictures, the company of other viewers, the physical “labor” of walking through the exhibit, and then the walk home after leaving Moma all contribute to an airing out of any thoughts I might have entertained this way or that way at a desk and/or before a computer.

What follows came to me at and after the walk to and through the exhibit.

What, then, will I say about the images themselves? Most of all, they are meticulous, even when the image is supposed to reflect ageing, dismemberment, death, and decomposition or physical and psychological stress and strain. In that way, they enjoy a kind of timelessness. That’s the problem with this kind of modern art, the rendering of something dirty with such lucid perfection.

When I first took up an active interest art in my mid-30s, I used to have a hard time identifying Sherman, the physical person, behind the role or the scene. All the personae looked so differently from each other. And that was supposed to be part of the point, right? The artist herself refracts into the image, and is no longer re-cognizable. But gathered all together in a retrospective, well, it’s now pretty easy to recognize the-actual-person-Cindy-Sherman (and even spot her reflections in the death and dismemberment works). In other words, “the subject” has reasserted herself. She no longer disappears behind the image, type, or scene.

For me, far more interesting than the images and what is arguably the thin undergirding theory was watching women looking at the images. The first thing I noted was that women visitors clearly outnumbered the men. Myself included, the men seemed more hurried, as people tend to be at museums, but also more uncomfortable and self-conscious than usual. The women were far more interested and more interesting to look at as they looked at the images. It seemed to me that they really paid attention, deep attention. They tended to stand looking at the individual image with uncrossed arms, open eyes, and quiet posture. They also tended to stay with each image, giving it a second, third, and fourth look, directing oblong looks back as they walked over to the next image, and then coming back to again to the image. And it also occurred to me that it was, as if, the “artificial normality” of the images heightened the “normal normality” of the viewers, whose gaze gave life and meaning to images that would have otherwise left me feeling bored and uninterested.

What do I walk away with? With what images? Walking through gallery after gallery, it’s Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy Sherman Cindy in a near infinity of American facets, completely exposed, psychologically and socially.

I left the museum in my own tired flesh. It’s been a couple days already. I’ve since re-composed myself.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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