The 1960s art scene was as diverse politically as it was aesthetically. The Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, racism – it was nearly impossible for issues such as these to take center stage in modern art. Second-wave feminism, a movement concerned with gender inequalities found in society (as opposed to those found in legislation), was in full swing with the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” Modernism as defined by heavyweight critics was crumbling, making unsteady headway into postmodernism.
Performance artists such as Carole Schneemann were pushing untold boundaries with their art, defying gender stereotypes with graphic effort (see: Schneemann’s “Interior Scroll” performance).
Photography began to hold as equal weight as painting and sculpture as part of the avant-garde, and nowhere is this development more evident than in the work of Cindy Sherman.
Born in New Jersey in 1954, Sherman cut her teeth on American and European art films during the ’70s. Her experience with cinema would directly evolve into her landmark photography series, “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-1980). By conjuring various female stereotypes found in film, Sherman attempted to erase the notion of the voyeuristic photographer – instead, the viewer is the voyeur. Her deft manipulation of angles, lighting and body language demands the viewer to recognize how society (specifically film) depicts women.
Instead of defining their own autonomy, Sherman’s film stills are in dialogue with contemporary culture. “Untitled Film Still no. 6” is a closely cropped shot of Sherman reclining on a couch in eveningwear with a dreamy look on her face, her limp hand holding a mirror. At a glance, the pose drips with vanity, her clothing eliciting a voyeuristic sentiment.
With another glance, the composition isn’t so shallow. She begins to look like that of a shocked corpse, the pose one of rigor mortis. Uncertain questions arise: What should the viewer feel for the woman (note, Sherman’s character, not Sherman herself)? Pity? Compassion? Is she in need of a man’s arms? It’s flat-out unsettling. Sherman leaves you no answers – she simply exposes sexism as it exists in popular culture.
In a 1982 untitled statement, Sherman wrote that “a photograph should transcend itself, the image its medium, in order to have its own presence.” Her art does exactly that. Each film still creates its own personality, its own personal interaction with the viewer through common culture..
“I’m trying to make other people recognize something of themselves rather than me,” she said in the same statement.
Sherman’s work, from her “Untitled Film Stills” to 1981’s “Centerfolds” to 1992’s “Sex Pictures,” is constantly evolving, time taking no toll on their overall effect.
Although she has claimed her work is not feminist, her manipulation of cultural norms (conscious and subconscious) completely triumphs.
The result, whether intended or not, stakes a huge claim for female artists and the female gender as a whole.