When I was in school I was getting disgusted with the attitude of art being so religious or sacred, so I wanted to make something which people could relate to without having read a book about it first. So that anybody off the street could appreciate it, even if they couldn’t fully understand it; they could still get something out of it. That’s the reason why I wanted to imitate something out of the culture, and also make fun of the culture as I was doing it.

Cindy Shermanfootnote1

Cindy Sherman had a full-scale retrospective in the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1987 and has recently had work on display at the Saatchi Gallery in London.footnote At a moment when the art market is rippling with the fallout from the Saatchis’ recent decision to sell some conceptual and postmodern work in order to invest in late modernism, this location is a sign of her economic as well as her critical standing. Her art is certainly postmodern. Her works are photographs; she is not a photographer but an artist who uses photography. Each image is built around a photographic depiction of a woman. And each of the women is Sherman herself, simultaneously artist and model, transformed, chameleon-like, into a glossary of pose, gesture and facial expression. As her work developed between 1977 and 1987 a strange process of metamorphosis took place. Apparently easy and accessible postmodern pastiche underwent a gradual transformation into difficult, but still accessible, images that raise serious and challenging questions for contemporary feminist aesthetics. And the metamorphosis provides a hindsight that then alters the significance of her early production. In order to work through the critical implications of this altered perspective, it is necessary to fly in the face of Sherman’s own expressly non-, even anti-, theoretical stance. Paradoxically, it is because there is no explicit citation of theory in the work, no explanatory words, no linguistic signposts, that theory can come into its own. Sherman’s work stays on the side of enigma, but as a critical challenge not as insoluble mystery. Figuring out the enigma, deciphering its pictographic clues, applying the theoretical tools associated with feminist aesthetics, is—to use one of her favourite words—fun, and draws attention to the way theory, decipherment and the entertainment of riddle or puzzle solving may be connected.

During the seventies, feminist aesthetics and women artists contributed greatly to the questioning of two great cultural boundary divisions. Throughout the twentieth century, inexorably but discontinuously, pressure had been building up against the separation of art theory from art practice on the one hand, and the separation between high culture and low culture on the other. The collapse of these divisions, crucial to the many and varied components of postmodernism, was also vital to feminist art. Women artists made use of both theory and popular culture through reference and quotation. Cindy Sherman, first showing work in the late seventies, used popular culture as her source material without using theory as commentary and distanciation device. When her photographs were first shown, their insistent reiteration of representations of the feminine, and her use of herself as model, in infinite varieties of masquerade, won immediate attention from critics who welcomed her as a counterpoint to feminist theoretical and conceptual art. The success of her early work, its acceptance by the centre (the art market and institutions) at a time when many artists were arguing for a politics of the margins, helped to obscure both the work’s interest for feminist aesthetics and the fact that the ideas it raised could not have been formulated without a prehistory of feminism and its theorization of the body and representation. Sherman’s arrival on the art scene certainly marks the beginning of the end of that era in which the female body had become, if not quite unrepresentable, only representable if refracted through theory. But rather than sidestepping, Sherman reacts and shifts the agenda. She brings a different perspective to the ‘images of women question’ and recuperates a politics of the body that had, perhaps, been lost or neglected in the twists and turns of seventies feminism.

In the early seventies, the women’s movement claimed the female body as a site for political struggle, mobilizing around abortion rights, above all, but with other ancillary issues spiralling out into agitation over medical marginalization and sexuality itself as a source of women’s oppression. A politics of the body led logically to a politics of representation of the body. It was only a small step to include the question of images of women in the accompanying debates and campaigns, but it was a step that also moved feminism out of familiar terrains of political action onto that of political aesthetics. And this small step called for a new conceptual vocabulary and opened feminist theory up to the influence of semiotics and psychoanalysis. The initial idea that images contributed to women’s alienation from their bodies and from their sexuality, with an attendant hope of liberation and recuperation, gave way to theories of representation as symptom and signifier of the way problems posed by sexual difference under patriarchy could be displaced onto the feminine.

Not surprisingly, this kind of theoretical/political aesthetics also affected artists working in the climate of seventies feminism, and the representability of the female body underwent a crisis. At one extreme, the film-maker Peter Gidal said in 1978 ‘I have had a vehement refusal over the last decade, with one or two minor aberrations, to allow images of women into my films at all, since I do not see how those images can be separated from the dominant meanings.’footnote2 Women artists and film-makers, while rejecting this wholesale banishment, were extremely wary about the investment of ‘dominant meanings’ in images of women; and while feminist critics turned to popular culture to analyse these meanings, artists turned to theory, juxtaposing images and ideas, to negate dominant meanings and, slowly and polemically, to invent different ones. Although in this climate Cindy Sherman’s concentration on the female body seemed almost shocking, her representations of femininity were not a return, but a re-representation, a making strange.

A visitor to a Cindy Sherman retrospective, who moves through the work in its chronological order, must be almost as struck by the dramatic nature of its development, as by the individual, very striking, works themselves. It is not a question of observing an increasing maturity, a changed style, or new directions, but of following a certain narrative of the feminine from an initial premiss to its very end. And this development takes place over ten years, between 1977 and 1987. The journey through time, through the work’s chronological development, is also a journey into space. Sherman dissects the phantasmagoric space conjured up by the female body, from its exteriority to its interiority. The visitor who reaches the final images and then returns, reversing the order, finds that with the hindsight of what was to come, the early images are transformed. The first process of discovery, amusement and amazement is completed by a new curiosity, reverie and decipherment. And then, once the process of bodily disintegration is established in the later work, the early, innocent, images acquire a retrospective uncanniness.

The first series of photographs, which also established Sherman’s reputation, are called Untitled Film Stills. In each photograph Sherman poses for the camera, as though in a scene from a movie. Each photograph has its own mise en scène, evoking a style of film-making that is highly connotative but elusive. The black and white photographs seem to refer to the fifties, to the New Wave, to Neo-realism, to Hitchcock, or to Hollywood b pictures: This use of an amorphous connotation places them in a nostalgia genre, comparable to the American movies of the eighties that Fredric Jameson describes as typifying the postmodern characteristic of evoking the past while denying the reference of history.footnote3 They have the Barthesian quality of ‘fifties-ness’: that American collective fantasy of the fifties as the time of everyone’s youth in a white and mainly middle America setting, in the last moment of calm before the storms of Vietnam, civil rights, and finally feminism. But Sherman twists nostalgia to suggest its dependence on constructing images and representations that conceal more than they record. She also draws attention to the historical importance of this period for establishing a particular culture of appearances—specifically, the feminine appearance. The accoutrements of the feminine struggle to conform to a facade of desirability haunt Sherman’s iconography. Make-up, high heels, hair, clothes are all carefully ‘put on’ and ‘done’. Sherman-the-model dresses up into character, while Sherman-the-artist reveals her character’s masquerade. The juxtaposition begins to refer to a ‘surface-ness’, so that nostalgia begins to dissolve into unease. An overinsistence on surface starts to suggest that it might be masking something or other that should be hidden from sight, and a hint of another space starts to lurk inside a too plausible facade. Sherman accentuates the uneasiness by inscribing vulner ability into both the mise en scène of the photographs and the women’s poses and expressions.