A few thoughts on Cindy Sherman at MoMA (and a rant about photography at museums in general)


General Photography

The other day, I went to New York City to, among other things, see the Cindy Sherman exhibition at MoMA. I’m a fan. I do realize that one is not to use the word “fan” in an art context. But since I want to spend a few thoughts on exactly that, context, I’ll happily use it regardless. (more)

To prepare, I pulled Cindy Sherman off my bookshelf, a book (catalogue really) published at the occasion of a major retrospective of the artist’s work in Europe a few years ago. Lest you think I do that for every show I go to: I don’t. There was a reason. I had read frequent gripes about the inclusion and/or treatment of Sherman’s clown photographs in the MoMA exhibition. This had made me wonder about its placement in the overall oevre.

The beauty of the book is that it allows the reader to follow the development of the artist and to thus understand and appreciate (that’s not a given) each and every body of work a little bit more. Everybody knows and loves the Untitled Film Stills, of course. But how do you get from those to the sex dolls to the clowns to the high-society types (and possibly back)? As it turns out, it’s all pretty straightforward - at least that’s what I got from it. There is a clear progression in the work, with the artist embracing what you could call the dark side for quite a while.

A decade ago you would have needed to photograph clowns. Two decades ago, contorted sex dolls (with a neat echo of Hans Bellmer). Now, and it’s amazing how much we’ve devolved in a cultural sense, all you need to do is to photograph high-society types. The freak show is all around us, the base line being provided by the internet (of course) and the culture-war zombies the Republican party has decided to put back center stage, waging their war on women’s rights and anything that’s not squeaky clean, extremely religious and very white in full view. Who would have thought we’d find ourselves in such a spot on New Year’s Eve back in 1999?

Of course, this is not all so apparent from Sherman’s photographs, because it’s art, good art, and good art is not always obvious. I suspect, to just add that, that people love the Untitled Film Stills so much because of all of Sherman’s work, they’re the most obvious - and safe. They allow us to be safely postmodern (or meta or whatever you want to call it), and we can secretly admire and openly criticize (or rather have the artist criticize for us, since that’s safer, too) the good old days that are being dissected there.

The Centerfolds, in contrast - that’s already slightly slippery territory, even though in retrospect it’s kind of amazing to see the problems people seemed to have with them. It’s maybe a sign of our times that so many people - some art critics included - speak of Sherman’s photographs as self portraits. It is as if in our overly narcissistic culture pointing the camera in one’s own direction can only mean “Hey, look at me!” and not “Hey, look at yourselves!” But this is what Sherman has been doing, occasionally a bit shtick-like, for the better part of her career: Converting her own body into not just caricatures, but reflections of us (and that’s why the work often is cruel).

This then is where the MoMA exhibition careens off the rails: The visual monstrosities are treated as little more than that - bunched together in a room and a half (or so), with the usual curator speak (“the uncanny”) couched around them. Huddle together, children, there is not much to see here. Don’t be afraid. We’ll be on safe territory again very soon.

Not so! Not fucking so!

There is no safe territory in Cindy Sherman’s work, as much as you can pretend there is by turning some images into oversized wall paper for your blockbuster show. You just have to walk through the final room of the exhibition, seeing Sherman posing as mentally somewhat (if not completely) unhinged high-society (or what we think of as high society) types, and then walk out the door, literally around a corner or two to experience just that in real life to realize what’s going on here. As a matter of fact, you don’t even need to leave the museum since it has a $25 admission fee, which makes sure only the affluent will come (on Friday afternoon, courtesy of some corporation, the unwashed masses can enter for free).

So the Cindy Sherman exhibition at MoMA - that’s probably as good as something like that can ever get at an American museum. It could have been so much more, such a different experience, but that’s just not going to happen. Museums, after all, are institutions, institutions with rules and ideas about money, and whatever is to go on display in a museum simply has to conform to the museum’s ideas of what it is.

Museum curators, the people in charge of arranging exhibitions, might be the group closest to being cultural bureaucrats in our society. Carefully distinct from the rest of us, slowly and steadily churning out a cold gruel to digest (not too much variety, everything ideally somewhat inoffensive yet challenging, but not too challenging and certainly not too offensive), expertly balancing everybody’s interests - and the rules, of course. By construction, the cultural bureaucracy, just like any bureaucracy, and risk are mutually exclusive. Risk is not to be had. Exhibitions that challenge widely accepted theories or truisms thus simply do not happen any longer.

It’s hard to imagine what John Szarkowski would say if he were to rise from the dead, to walk into MoMA. But it’s safe to say that while people still talk about some of his exhibitions I don’t hear any fond talk of anything that was on display over the course of the past ten years, say (as someone interested in photography I’m only talking about this medium - just so that’s clear). So now we have inoffensive blockbuster shows (catalog available both as a hard and softcover) and something like New Photography. When you’re dealing “with the aim of capturing the diversity and international scope of contemporary photographic work” you know there’s a very, very low bar being crossed.

I want to blame museums for creating the situation they’re in, but that’s just foolish. The days of John Szarkowski are over. Make no mistake, it’s not even that I find everything Szarkowski did so interesting (that whole macho street photography cult? Really?). But here was somebody willing to define the medium, willing to put something out there. The willingness might still exist - but the ability is gone. Museums have become ossified institutions, and museum curators aren’t former photographers any longer. Instead, they are professionally trained museum curators, who, to make this clear, are great at what they’re trained to do.

Just don’t expect a curve ball.

In that sense, with everything always being pressed into an art-historical Procrustean Bed it can’t be a real surprise that it was a museum that staged a panel… I’m sorry, a symposium Is Photography Over? The question is ludicrous. But in the museum context, it’s perfectly valid, and it makes perfect sense. The answer is: Yes, at museums photography is over.