Arielle OremCCTP-725: Cultural HybridityFall 2012Professor Martin IrvineFinal Wiki



Cindy Sherman: Remixing History and Resisting Gender Prescription Through Technology


Introduction:

Art has long been a medium through which to express ideas and cultural criticisms that would not be well-received through worded-language. It is the duty of the audience member to interpret the visual language of the artist and produce our own meaning from the artwork. Often contemporary artists will reference other artists’ work within their own pieces, combining familiar elements in unique ways to create a new work of art; this process is called remixing. Contemporary artist Cindy Sherman frequently uses remix techniques in her artwork to challenge familiar ideas about the status of women in contemporary media.
This essay will explore Sherman’s work, specifically the series of untitled photographs often referred to by art critics as the History Portraits, to explore how high art has been remixed to provide a cultural critique of feminine identity. Questions to be discussed include: How does this series of photographs speak to Bakhtin’s theory of intertextuality and Lessig’s ideas about remix culture? What meaning is Sherman leveraging to create something new? What new idea is Sherman challenging her audience to consider? How does Sherman’s use of technologies such as makeup and prosthetics challenge notions of female identity in contemporary culture? In answering these questions, this essay seeks to continue Sherman’s visual-language discussion of the female subject in contemporary media.

Sherman, Cindy. Untitled A-E, 1975 Gelatin Silver Prints. each 16 3/8 x 11 1/16" (41.6 x 28.1 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Gift of Lannan Foundation.
Sherman, Cindy. Untitled A-E, 1975 Gelatin Silver Prints. each 16 3/8 x 11 1/16" (41.6 x 28.1 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Gift of Lannan Foundation.


Background:
Cindy Sherman is well-recognized as one of the most influential conceptual artists of our time. Classically trained in studio art at the State University College at Buffalo, New York, Sherman became captivated by the photograph as an artistic medium. In 1975, while still a student, Sherman produced her first series of black and white self-portraits- Untitled A - E; each image shows Sherman adopting a different persona through the use of makeup and costumes. Sherman would continue to embrace fantasy characters throughout her career. (Cruz, 1-2)
During the next several years, Sherman would use photography to explore and critique many aspects of popular culture including nostalgic films, pornography and pin-ups, fashion, and fairy tales. Formerly a medium for capturing reality, Cindy Sherman was one of the first artists to combine fiction and photography. As art critic Jean-Pierre Criqui notes, "There is not a single image in Cindy Sherman's work that does not explore concepts of pretense and fabrication, staginess and simulation" (271). One of the ways Sherman accomplishes this notion of fabrication is by consistently maintaining the roles of both photographer and subject. “By placing herself both behind and in front of the camera, [Sherman] drains her images of any impression of reality, and offers in exchange a half-amused, half-sardonic representation of the characteristics that make each person a representation in themselves” (Criqui, 279). This artistic decision is made, in part, for practical reasons: “never particularly authoritarian by nature, Sherman cannot envisage subjecting others to the sort of control which she feels is essential” (Criqui, 271).


Cindy Sherman. Untitled #216. 1989  Chromogenic color print, 7' 3 1/8" x 56 1/8" (221.3 x 142.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser.
Cindy Sherman. Untitled #216. 1989 Chromogenic color print, 7' 3 1/8" x 56 1/8" (221.3 x 142.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser.
Cindy Sherman. Untitled #201. 1989  Chromogenic color print, 52 7/8 x 35 7/8" (134.3 x 91.1 cm). Private collection, New York City.
Cindy Sherman. Untitled #201. 1989 Chromogenic color print, 52 7/8 x 35 7/8" (134.3 x 91.1 cm). Private collection, New York City.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled #228. 1990  Chromogenic color print, 6' 10 1/16" x 48" (208.4 x 122 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Eileen and Peter Norton.
Cindy Sherman. Untitled #228. 1990 Chromogenic color print, 6' 10 1/16" x 48" (208.4 x 122 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Eileen and Peter Norton.

In 1988, Sherman would turn her critical gaze toward high art, remixing the work of the Old Masters of portraiture. She drew inspiration for this series from a commission she received from Artes Magnus, the elite New-York based arts dealer, for which she designed tea and dinner service sets using original molds from 18th century France (Cruz, 11). Over the course of a two-year period, Sherman used makeup, wigs, costumes, and prosthetic body parts to re-imagine thirty-five color portraits of “various nobles, mythological heroes, and madonnas that have been depicted by court painters” (Cruz, 10).

Literature Review:
Cindy Sherman. Untitled #225. 1990  Chromogenic color print, 48 x 33" (121.9 x 83.8 cm). Collection of Nina and Frank Moore.
Cindy Sherman. Untitled #225. 1990 Chromogenic color print, 48 x 33" (121.9 x 83.8 cm). Collection of Nina and Frank Moore.
It is interesting to note that in this series, Sherman does not draw inspiration for her characters from the people she has experienced in her daily life nor from the images of celebrities populated by contemporary media; Sheman instead re-imagines the characters created by the well-known master painters. Amada Cruz, in her essay “Movies, Monstrosities, and Masks: Twenty Years of Cindy Sherman,” notes that “the History portraits (for the most part) do not reproduce any particular paintings... they depict types from the genre” (11). Regis Durand describes these types of characters in his “Introduction” for the exhibition catalog for the Cindy Sherman exhibition organized by the Jeu de Paume, Paris: “...the character portrayed is by turns an androgynous, Caravaggesque figure, a Botticelli blonde, a Renaissance-style grand dignitary, an English aristocrat straight out of a painting by Reynolds or Gainsborough, and a Flemish burgher. The references are by no means all explicit, but every image in the series evokes the art of painting.” (256). Cruz compares Sherman’s portrayal of male characters to the gender reversals featured in the work of Marcel Duchamp. It is Sherman’s female characters that Cruz finds most striking: “Spoofing the often awkward depictions of the female anatomy in Old Master paintings, she uses fake breasts of astounding configurations to great effects... [one painting in particular] in which the bosom of an aristocrat squirts a trajectory of fluid” (12). Sherman's use of prosthetics and costuming in these remixed portraits incites audiences to reconsider how these genre characters became established and the roles and values assigned to each character.

To some people this series of history portraits may seem discordant with Sherman’s other works which rely heavily on the processes used in contemporary mass media production; however, “the History portraits likewise deal with a representational system that reinforces a particular ideology, albeit a more dated one” (Cruz, 12). Durand discusses this series, saying:
"By taking as her subject the pantheon of Western art, Cindy Sherman is undermining these pictures’ immutable, “frozen” character, and wrecking the arrogant assurance of a set of icons that have been thoroughly hijacked by the commercial world. Even devalued and transformed into graven idols, these Old Master portraits overflow with life, significance, and symbols. Sherman seems to be striving to undermine their self-satisfied complacency, to attack the traditional relationship between the painter and his model, and the unchallenged dominance of a particular form of representation that has stayed ahead of the rest. (256)"
Sherman’s re-mixed use of Old Master paintings to critique commonly held historical notions of the author/subject relationship and the role of women in society will be examined further in the discussion section of this essay.
Theoretical Perspective:

In discussing the artwork of Cindy Sherman, this essay relies on three main theories: Mikhail Bakhntin’s theory of intertextuality (or in this case intermediality), Lawrence Lessig’s understanding of remix as an artistic process, and Jennifer Slack’s and Macgregor Wise’s perspective on technology and identity politics. Twentieth-century Russian semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin was first to introduce the theory of intertextuality, positing that “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another” (Kristeva, 37). Bakhtin stressed the importance of understanding a text through its relationship to other texts. Works of art can be considered a type of text, as meaning in art is produced through a system of visual signs rather than written language. In an increasingly post-modern society, a related term emerges - “intermediality” - which describes a text as it relates to other-media texts. For example, many contemporary films are intermedial, such as the popular film Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009) which references several books and an internet blog.

American political activist and legal professor Lawrence Lessig explores this idea of intermediality as it relates to intellectual property. Lessig popularizes the term “remix” as a way to characterize a common practice among contemporary artists of combining elements of existing artworks (or texts, to use Bakhtin’s term) in unique ways to create new works of art. In his book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Lessig describes this idea, saying: “Whether text or beyond text, remix is collage; it comes from combining elements of RO (read/only) culture; it succeeds by leveraging the meaning created by the reference to build something new... Like a great essay or a funny joke, a remix draws upon the work of others in order to do new work” (72, 86). Lessig identifies a direct link between advanced technologies, such as digital photography and the internet, and the rise of remix culture.

Communication and Cultural Studies scholars Jennifer Daryl Slack and J. Macgregor Wise are also interested in the role that technology plays in contemporary culture; of particular importance are those technologies which affect how a person constructs her own identity. In Culture + Technology: A Primer, Slack & Wise describe the link between identity, technology, and culture, saying:“...identity is deeply implicated in technological culture. Who and what we are is integrally articulated to the differential ways that tasks are delegated to technology, and to the ways that those technologies prescribe identity roles back on us.... Variably, people do resist the identities prescribed for them by technological culture, and they often use technologies to do so” (162). Slack and Wise reflect on several technologies used to alter one’s identity, saying:

“...technologies can be used to alter identities to either conform to or rebel against cultural norms. These technologies of the body range from makeup to surgery. Makeup is used to alter one’s appearance to fit within cultural norms of attractiveness and to exaggerate or emphasize gendered characteristics of appearance, such as the eyes or lips. But makeup is also used to alter racial characteristics. For example, skin-lightening cream is used to change the color of one’s skin, so that it better meets the cultural ideal of fair skin and “white” identity. Other cosmetic technologies that work to alter identity include surgical technologies such as liposuction, collagen implants, breast augmentation and reduction, face-lifts, nose jobs, and penis enhancement. Women are the predominant users of these procedures, but men also use them. These surgeries can reinforce cultural standards of attractiveness. Cosmetic surgeries also alter racial characteristics. For example, such procedures are relatively common in Southeast Asia, where Asian women have cosmetic eyelid surgery to rid themselves of their epicanthic eyelid to take on the rounder eye shape of Western (Caucasian) standards of beauty. However, this example is more complicated, since women may undergo this operation in order to minimize the racist reactions that their epicanthic eyelids elicit (as a marker of racial difference) rather than explicitly to look white. As genetic science and technology become more sophisticated, the technology will be used to alter these identity characteristics on a genetic level by selecting our or altering the human genome.” (161-162)

Cindy Sherman takes up this idea of technology as a tool for resistance in her artwork, using specific technologies (including her camera, makeup, and prosthetics) to resist identities prescribed to her by mass media.

Discussion

To discuss how these theories relate to Sherman’s work in greater detail, this essay will examine a single photograph from the history portrait series: Untitled #224 (1990). The subject in this photograph is directly linked to Caravaggio’s 1953 painting Bacchino Malato (“Little Sick Bacchus”), a self-portrait of the artist as Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Sherman’s work references Caravaggio’s through the model’s costume, posture, and gaze; the table in the foreground on which the model rests; and the black background void. Sherman is relying on the renown of Caravaggio’s painting to resonate with her own audience, leveraging the cultural capital of the Old Masters to captivate the gaze of contemporary audiences; this intermediality directly influences how audiences view Sherman’s photograph. To someone who is unfamiliar with Caravaggio’s painting, the dialogue between painting and photograph is lost.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.. Sick Bacchus 1593-94 Oil on canvas Galleria Borghese, Rome
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.. Sick Bacchus 1593-94 Oil on canvas Galleria Borghese, Rome
Cindy Sherman. Untitled #224. 1990  Chromogenic color print, 48 x 38" (121.9 x 96.5 cm). Collection of Linda and Jerry Janger, Los Angeles.
Cindy Sherman. Untitled #224. 1990 Chromogenic color print, 48 x 38" (121.9 x 96.5 cm). Collection of Linda and Jerry Janger, Los Angeles.

























While there are many similarities between the two works, Sherman carefully alters specific elements, remixing the original painting to produce a unique work of art. The first notable distinction between the two works is the gender of each artist/model; since both works are self-portraits it can be assumed that Caravaggio’s model is male, while Sherman’s model is a female portraying a more androgynous character. Additionally, Sherman’s model does not portray the jaundiced, “sick” coloring that has been applied to the male model. Finally, Sherman chooses not to include a pair of oranges alongside the grapes displayed on the table in the foreground; the exclusion of these thinly-veiled metaphorical testicles seems fitting in Sherman’s feminist photograph. By remixing Caravaggio’s work, Sherman seems to be urging her audiences to consider the role of the female in art, both historically and in the present moment. In subjecting historical portraiture, Sherman is attempting to elevate photography to the status of high art. Sherman’s hybrid artwork takes on it’s own unique interpretations outside of those presented in the original painting.


Sherman is able to accomplish this remixing of Caravaggio’s work through the use of photography as well as makeup and prosthetics, both considered forms of technology as described by Slack and Wise. Sherman uses these technologies as tools to rebel against the gendered identity prescribed to her by mass media. Sherman accomplishes her artwork by subverting the same technology used by mass media to prescribe gender identities: the photograph. Makeup in the mass media is depicted as a tool for enhancing feminine characteristics such as defined eyes and brows, smooth complexion, and a healthy skin tone. In Untitled #224, Sherman applies her makeup, carefully enhancing these same features, yet with a very different purpose: the character displayed rejects the notion of gendered identity, instead presenting an androgynous figure. Additionally, Sherman employs prosthetics to enhance the muscular definition of her shoulder and arm, confirming the androgynous nature of her character. Sherman’s use of technology to challenge cultural gender norms has caused her to be considered as one of today’s leading feminist artists.






Works Cited:
Cruz, Amada. “Movies, Monstrosities, and Masks: Twenty Years of Cindy Sherman.” Cindy Sherman: Retrospective/Exhibition. Cindy Sherman. Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1997. 1-18. Print.


Criqui, Jean-Pierre. “The Lady Vanishes.” Cindy Sherman. Eds. Julie Rouart and Clement Dirie. Paris: Flammarion SA/Edititions Jeu de Paume, 2006. 270-283. Print.


Durand, Regis. “Introduction.” Cindy Sherman. Eds. Julie Rouart and Clement Dirie. Paris: Flammarion SA/Edititions Jeu de Paume, 2006. 230-269. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. Print.

Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. Print.

Slack, Jennifer Daryl, and J. Macgregor Wise. Culture + Technology: A Primer. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2005. Print.