See earlier posts on Cindy Sherman:
- Understanding Visual Culture – Project 3-4: Author? What Author
- Documentary – Exercise 1-5: A Postmodern Documentary
- Exhibition: Cindy Sherman, National Portrait Gallery, London
For this post, I am concerned with Cindy Sherman’s recent Instagram work, thoughts about her other aspects of her practice can be found in my post on her exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery on 2019.
In 2017, Cindy Sherman caused a sensation in the art world by suddenly, and without explanation, making her previously private Instagram account public. For Noah Becker (2017), in a sense Sherman pioneered the idea of the “selfie” decades before social media with her dramatically stages self-portraiture. He describes the work:
“Sherman’s Instagram posts are a series of wildly distorted selfies, flower arrangements and disturbing hospital self-portraits, with oxygen tubes up her nostrils. There is a video shot from the perspective of someone lying in a hospital bed. The viewer is made to wonder how much of this is real, whether Sherman was actually hospitalized, or if it’s mere fabrication. The images are also affected by an array of decorative filters available on Instagram that animate or change the facial features of users. The line between real life and posed events that Instagram affords heightens the confusion as to what is actually happening.” (Becker, 2017)
Sherman is famously reticent in discussing the meaning of her work. Parul Sehgal (2018) quotes curator Darsie Alexander as saying, “[the] fact of her silence is now almost part of Cindy’s canon”. One thing Sherman has imparted about her work however is that her photographs are not self-portraits, nor do they depict her fantasies. She has also commented that she loathes selfies describing them as “so vulgar”, a comment that becomes loaded when read in conjunction with her Instagram work. Sehgal describes her thoughts on the series:
“with the Instagram series, Sherman isn’t riffing on recognizable archetypes. Her new mock self-portraits are of ordinary people, albeit cartoonishly caricatured. They are some of the first pure protagonists in Sherman’s work: These women are not metaphors, they are not waiting to be represented, rescued or destroyed. They are gloriously, catastrophically themselves, and we meet them on their own terms – as we so frequently meet each other – in stagy, embarrassing, endearing selfies launched into the world.
These are all photographs of subtle rebellions – the first thing being the demand, of women of a certain age, to be noticed, admired. Or do I have it backward? The longer I look at these photographs, the less sure I am of them. Are these women insisting on being seen or are they taunting us, mischievously playing on fears of female ugliness, of becoming old and absurd or just invisible? That slipperiness in her work – does she see people clearly out of kinship or cruelty? – becomes complicated here by her ambivalence about ageing.” (Sehgal, 2018)
In an interview with Andrew Russeth (2017), Sherman is humble about her intentions with her Instagram work, describing them as “silly sketches”:
“All these Instagram images are, for me, just playing around…I don’t think it at all competes with my serious work. They’re just fun, like a little distraction” (Russeth, 2017)
Russeth sees an irony in her use of Instagram however, as an artist who has constantly resisted autobiographical readings of her work to embrace a platform that thrives on the interplay of the personal and the artificial seems provocative. He also notes that many of Sherman’s images could be designated ‘plandids’ rather than selfies – that is, “carefully composed images of studious nonchalance; [that] capture subjects who are determinedly carefree.”
Jad Dashan (2019) makes a distinction between the tone of Sherman’s “official”, gallery exhibited work and the images she posts to Instagram:
“The very nature of the gallery valorizes the artwork, even in the case of art defined by institutional criticism. This might be an historical vestige of the exclusivity of salons and the art economy. Regardless, this is replaced on Instagram with the validation given by likes, comments, and follower counts. Opening up critique to a massive, unspecialized cyber-public seems to imbue her Instagram pictures with a sense of informality that is only bolstered by the fact that they are interspersed with more casual, perennial posts…In a way, the art is more democratic even more accessible when exhibition bureaucracies…are sidestepped and the art is no longer immured within the gallery.” (Dahshan, 2019)
Paddy Johnson (2017), while finding elements to admire in Sherman’s Instagram work, such as a post where she poses with her pet macaw in which she humorously appears like a 50 year old teenager, is suspicious of the near universal critical acclaim the work has received describing it as the result of a trend becoming more influential than the craft itself. Ultimately, she finds the works lacking in depth:
“As per usual, Sherman has transformed herself, but there’s no grand insight that comes from selfies altered with a couple of apps.
And that’s fine. As a platform for experimentation and play, Instagram is pretty great for artists at all levels of the game. But I don’t want to describe this as more than it is. It’s not an exhibition, these are not masterworks, and we definitely don’t need to hail Sherman’s selfies.” (Johnson, 2017)
While I can see Johnson’s point, and I can understand her railing against the sycophancy directed toward Sherman’s Instagram work, there is a suggestion of elitism that turns me off. Similarly to Stephen Shore, an artist who has recently been posting work to Instagram, the accessibility of these works is what makes them so appealing to me. To see the platform used as a kind of sketchbook is fascinating, and in the case of Sherman, the inclusion of personal posts alongside her manipulated images only adds to her enigma. Superficially, these posts offer an insight into her personal life that she has tried hard to keep private over the years, but it does not take much consideration to realise that we learn very little new, and definitely nothing of substance. Perhaps the surface nature of Sherman’s engagement with social media are the point of the exercise in itself. Personally, I find the work interesting and engaging on a number of levels especially since the type of performative self portraiture that Sherman has made her practice around is now available for anyone with access to a smartphone and the relevant apps.
Becker, N. (2017) How Cindy Sherman’s Instagram selfies are changing the face of photography. The Guardian, 9th August 2017. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/aug/09/cindy-sherman-instagram-selfies-filtering-life (accessed 8th July 2020)
Dahshan, J. (2019) Let me take a selfie: Cindy Sherman and the shift to Instagram. Artmejo. Available at: https://artmejo.com/let-me-take-a-selfie-cindy-sherman-and-the-shift-to-instagram/
Elbaor, C. (2017) Cindy Sherman just made her Instagram account public and it’s amazing. Artnet. Available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/cindy-sherman-instagram-1039676 (accessed 8th July 2020)
Johnson, P. (2017) Why I “like” but don’t love Cindy Sherman’s Instagram photos. Hyperallergic. Available at: https://hyperallergic.com/394486/cindy-sherman-joins-instagram/ (accessed 8th July 2020)
Russeth, A. (2017) Facetime with Cindy Sherman. W Magazine. Available at: https://www.wmagazine.com/story/cindy-sherman-instagram-selfie/ (accessed 8th July 2020)
Sehgal, P. (2018) Ugly beauty. The New York Times Magazine, October 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/05/magazine/instagram-cindy-sherman-ugly-beauty.html
Wright, G. (2017) Cindy Sherman just made her private Instagram public. i-D. Available at: https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/pagnny/cindy-sherman-just-made-her-private-instagram-public?utm_source=stylizedembed_i-d.vice.com&utm_campaign=gy44yj&site=i-d (accessed 23rd May 2020)