Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Enigma: Cindy Sherman, Eliot & Cheever

Untitled Film Stills, Cindy Sherman, 1977
Untitled #96, Cindy Sherman, 1981

Flipping through the Norton, I was really excited to see Cindy Sherman's photographs included. It says:
"This series consists of 'self-portraits' in which the artist explores representations of women by dressing in a variety of costumes and adopting a variety of poses. Sherman's role as both photographer and subject reverses the traditional power of the male gaze, and here she examines and subverts the objectified images of women displayed in magazine centerfolds. Rather than signaling availability, this cropped, colorful-saturated photograph is enigmatic. Sherman's girlish clothing, evoking the 1950s, conceals more than it reveals, and she holds in her hand a largely unreadable scrap torn from a newspaper. Her gaze, vacant and interior, is also unreadable" (C5)
I find this photograph, as well as Sherman's other self-portraits, exciting because it's so mysterious. Yes the pictures are of her, but they aren't her. She's obviously playing a role, like all models that appear in magazines as "centerfolds" are playing a role. This role is a representation of a woman, not an actual woman, and not Cindy Sherman. In magazines, women are portrayed with a higher sense of sexuality and appeal--and this is Sherman's commentary that the photograph should not be indicative of real life.

Cindy Sherman is subverting the idea of the centerfold, by reversing the approachability and accessibleness of the model. Who is this woman? What's going on?! What is she thinking? What's her motivation? It's the new Mona Lisa. There are so many unanswered questions in these photographs. It's the epitome of "Depersonalized", in the terms of Eliot: "Not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion... not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality" (1011). The model is not expressing a common emotion, she is expressing a feeling that is usually not photographed, and the result is mystifying. Sherman has found a new way to look at an old emotion.

Sherman de-personalizes the subject (herself) because the emotions and context of the photograph is a mystery. Like it is stated in the Norton, the subject in the photograph is 'enigmatic' and is 'concealing' something, and that is never revealed to the audience. Something has happened in the photograph that we are not meant to know. In "Untitled Film Stills", there actually is no film, but a story definitely exists. Also, the artist is able to detach herself from the actual "art", allowing it (the art) to speak for itself.

The part in the passage describing Sherman's photograph "evoking the 1950s" and "conceals more than it reveals", reminds me of Cheever's "The Swimmer". At the start of the story, we are clueless about the title character's story. As the story progresses, we are clued in little by little, but the main character who has succeeded to depersonalize himself from his sense of reality--he was "so disciplined in the regression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of truth" (2253)--is still in the dark by the end. Despite his blindness, he is still aware of something that we are not privy to, and this relates to Sherman's photography.

Sherman's photograph's story is a reversal of this idea: we are still kept in the dark, the title character is unaware of our glimpse into her life, yet still retains her secrets, and the photographer is aware of it all. Something is being concealed on purpose, but perhaps to see something in a certain or new way, old traditional perspectives must be forgotten. We must look at old emotions and stories from new ways, ways that would normally have gone unnoticed before. The good poet is not "unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious" (Eliot 1011), he [or she] is aware of something we are not.

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