Photography drew my critical attention in the late 1960s for a variety of reasons. As a vehicle for basic visual communication, it was democratically accessible and widely if not universally practiced. As a mass medium, it was pervasive, omnipresent. And as a medium for creative expression it functioned, almost by definition, as a form of what some now call "outsider" art.
Complex definitions of "outsider" art proliferate, but they boil down to this: it's art made by citizens of first-world countries who never went to art school and are not part of what Terry Allen calls "the art mob" in a few major urban centers. Because photography was until the mid-1960s generally considered a bastard offspring of the fine arts, at best their handmaiden, it wasn't taught (with very few exceptions) in art schools, nor were its practitioners generally welcome among other visual artists and treated as peers and colleagues. So those drawn to it learned it on their own, from their amateur relatives, by apprenticeship to professionals, through mail-order courses, at the local camera club, in the military, or at polytechnic institutes, and hung out with each other. De facto "outsiders."
No more. In the mid-'60s, driven by student demand, the integration of photography into art-department and art-school curricula in this country began in earnest. Consequently, in the 1970s photography shifted status more abruptly and dramatically than had any previous medium, moving with breath-taking speed from "outsider" status to what must be the logical converse: "insider" art. And the Museum of Modern Art's acquisition last year of a complete set of Cindy Sherman's black & white 69-print "Untitled Film Stills" series for a reported $1 million, and its presentation of that body of work now, must be understood as a sociological event: the apotheosis of photography as "insider" art.
I often speak to my students about what I call the "empty vessel" concept of art -- the notion that a work of art is merely a convenient receptacle into which we're free to pour whatever ideas, attitudes and feelings we happen to have on hand at the moment. That's a fallacy in the viewer's thinking, in my opinion. All responses to a work of art do not carry equal weight; all interpretations are not equally valid. Distinctive works of art, in my experience, resist and confound certain reactions, encourage others. Responding to a Cezanne still life by discussing your personal preferences in fresh fruit misses the point. I say this to inhibit in them the tendency toward vague free-association that's pandemic (especially, but not exclusively, among the young) as a substitute for close critical attention to works of art, whose specifics of form and facture serve as guideposts toward the appropriate territories of interpretation. This assumes, of course, that the work embodies some specific content the maker sought to transmit or make available.
But suppose the artist in fact sets out to craft an empty vessel, designs it to accept whatever one wants to dump there? How does one judge such a work? Surely not by the same gauge one would apply to a Cezanne. Seems to me that the number of people it enticed into depositing their baggage therein would serve as the only possible measuring device. And by that standard it appears to me that Ms. Sherman's project constitutes a genuine triumph.
And here is the crux of the matter, as I see it: That was the plan. The goal was not to generate and record convincing performances; what she set out to imitate were usually marginally skilled actresses in poorly limned roles. (Andy Warhol reportedly commented that "She's good enough to be a real actress," but I know of no director who judges acting ability from film stills, and given the actors and actresses Warhol promoted -- Joe Dalessandro, Viva -- I have a hard time taking seriously his evaluation of acting talent.) Nor was the purpose to make memorable images; these are, after all, deliberately mediocre imitations of hack work, film stills from B movies; I know no one who could describe more than five or six of them in detail. Nor was the goal to make distinctive objects; film stills are mass-produced for distribution, casually crafted as artifacts, and a good reproduction suffices as an encounter with any of them -- no one actually needs to see or study these prints in order to understand the work.
Indeed, I'll go a step further: No one needs to even see any of these pictures, in the original or in reproduction, in order to opine about them knowledgeably and use them as a reference point. That embodies their true genius. A simple verbal formulation of their premise -- "a series of simulated film stills in which a single young woman stages and acts out the different stereotypical roles of 1950s B-movie actresses" -- functions as a fully adequate substitute for the actual experience of the works themselves.
In short, we have here a canny aspiring insider's strategy, the quintessence of work consciously tailored to be written about, custom-built to serve the needs and desires of a specific generation of critics. Picasso once said, "I don't want there to be three or four thousand possibilities of interpreting my canvas. I want there to be only one. . . . Otherwise a painting is just an old grab bag for everyone to reach into and pull out what himself has put in. I want my paintings to be able to defend themselves, to resist the invader, just as though there were razor blades on all the surfaces . . ." Well, no razor blades here. To the contrary, here's Ms. Sherman's message to those three or four thousand hungry opinionators: Lunch is served.
Fact is, there's no theory -- of culture, of gender politics, of psychoanalysis, of "visuality," of the simulacrum -- that these images cannot be used to illustrate, no notion, trendy or otherwise, that anything obdurate in them will contradict or refute. We have here, after all, images of a woman playing the role of a woman playing the role of a woman. In the recursiveness of that infinity of mirrors, Ms. Sherman becomes the lady from Shanghai, with no disillusioned Orson Welles determined to break the spell. Or, to put it another way, this is the one-size-fits-all of contemporary photography, with Ms. Sherman as the art world's equivalent to Woody Allen's Zelig or Jerzy Kosinski's Chauncey Gardiner, all things to all people. Form follows function: woman as perfect and passive vessel, receptive to whatever one cares to project, shape-shifter (extra)ordinaire.
As I said, writing about this does not require close attention to the pictures themselves, only minimal knowledge of the concept on which they're based. One can read the voluminous commentary for which Ms. Sherman's work has served as springboard and find many things: discussions of feminism, the male gaze, mimesis, Kant, Hegel, Freud, Lacan, Barthes, Kristeva, Foucault. Here's what you won't find, no matter how hard you search: any discussion of her picture-making strategies, the ways in which individual scenarios are constructed and their renditions crafted, choices of point of view, the strengths and weaknesses of particular pictures, actual formal relationships between her works, close comparisons to generic film stills.
In fact, when paid such attention certain unmentionable issues become foregrounded. A number of these images reveal technical and/or stylistic flaws and inconsistencies that would make them unusable as film stills. Half a dozen are severely reticulated (a visible puckering of the emulsion that results from careless processing of the film). One is drastically overexposed. Several are so out of focus that they come closer to mid-century pictorialism than anything Hollywood would tolerate. A significant percentage more resemble paparazzo reportage than on-set coverage. And so on.
I wouldn't claim familiarity with the complete critical literature now barnacling this body of work, but I've nowhere found even a mention of such matters. This speaks of various tendencies among my colleagues -- an avoidance of the real spadework of scholarship (by which I don't mean re-reading Lyotard); an ongoing ignorance of the basics of photography; an actual aversion to discussing the specifics of works of art. Instead, as Peter Galassi, MoMA's Chief Curator of Photography, says in an accompanying handout, since these pictures were made "everyone [has been] telling us what she meant. The sheer volume of verbiage -- the banal and bombastic along with the thoughtful and perceptive -- is a symptom of the nature of Sherman's achievement (and now part of its meaning)."
He could not speak more plainly: regardless of quality, the physical amount of commentary evoked by Ms. Sherman's project establishes its significance -- and (tacitly) justifies the Department of Photography's acquisition of a full set thereof for a market- making price.
Now this will shock many of my readers: I agree with him. I don't think my opinion of these pictures, or the larger project they constitute, matters. In the two decades since their maker undertook their production, they've become an international reference point not only for critics and other art-world types but for a large segment of the general public. The art world working as it does, they're in forever -- even if, like Bougereau, Ms. Sherman eventually falls out of critical favor. So they've earned a de facto importance, and Mr. Galassi's acquisition of them signals most visibly his ongoing efforts to stretch his department's parameters beyond the rigid modernism of his mentor and predecessor, John Szarkowski.
Ultimately, one must admire the carefully plotted trajectory of this work. Commenced in 1977, when Ms. Sherman was only 23, shortly after she received her B.A. from the State University at Buffalo (where she studied with one of the masters of directorial photography, Les Krims), it made its debut at the Center for Exploratory Arts/Hallwalls, a not-for-profit artist-run outfit in Buffalo that her cohort used as a showcase. (Now there's a real subject for art-historical research, though I fear Mr. Galassi is right in prophesying that, instead, "Eventually a small army of cinema scholars will map Sherman's Stills against film history.") A mere year later it had made its way to New York City. It was initially positioned as exemplifying a kind of post-modern anti-photography -- and certainly challenged MoMA's then-current position on that subject; Ms. Sherman consistently resisted identification as a photographer, despite her choice of medium.
Today, just twenty years on, that same body of work has found a permanent home in the very bastion of modernism, and in its department of photography to boot, at a record price; it, and its maker's name, are on everyone's lips; it has become an acknowledged part of art history. To whatever Ms. Sherman sets her hand from now on -- even the recently completed feature film her dissatisfied producers have withheld from distribution -- attention must and will be paid. What arc of triumph from insider-aspirant to insider-queen could be more perfect and -- for those who admire such things, however grudgingly -- more admirable?