Cindy Sherman: but is it art-art?
In truth, until I’d seen the article in The Economist on her, I’d never even heard of Cindy Sherman. It’s not as if I’m a complete Philistine. There are plenty of contemporary artists that
I’m familiar with I’ve heard of: Julian Schnabel, Lucian Freud (okay, I think he’s dead), David Hockney (love the swimming pool!), Keith Haring (he’s dead, too), Shepard Fairey. And if you’re thinking I’m only familiar with I’ve only heard of dead and living white men: Georgia O’Keeffe (admittedly, dead), Judy Chicago, Maya Lin, and Betsey Nelson (my sister-in-law).
Nonetheless, when I read the name Cindy Sherman, I thought she was an actress who played one of the kids in The Brady Bunch. (Maybe I am a Philistine, after all. Sigh.)
Since I wasn’t familiar with Cindy Sherman, I wasn’t familiar with her subject matter, either. It’s not swimming pools, table place settings, or politicos. What Cindy Sherman does is take photographs of herself. Which sell for an awful lot of money.
This record has since been eclipsed - in November an Andreas Gursky photograph sold for $4.3M. But by anyone’s accounting, $3.9M is a lot of moola.
Hey, I don’t think photographers can’t be artists, and that artists can’t be photographers. And I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with self-portrait of the artist as art. It’s not as if The Greats didn’t all do it. Furthermore, I would certainly pay $3.9M for the portrait of this artist as a suburban teenage before I’d shell out that much for one of Sherman’s clowns (which I find particularly disturbing for reasons that have more to do with clowns than with photography as art or with Cindy Sherman).
Still, while it can’t be argued that something is worth what someone’s willing to pay for it. And while it can’t be argued that art – at this level – is an investment, with the buyer gambling that the price will increase over time, it does seem a bit odd to pay that much for a photograph which, unlike a painting, can be easily replicated.
Art-art - i.e., paintings – are one of a kind. Whether the artist took months to render the work, or dashed it off in an afternoon, it is unique. Yes, someone can turn it into a poster or a postcard. A forger can copy it. And I believe that it’s possible to buy replicas that have texture – you can see the brushstrokes, etc.
But - even while acknowledging that there are high quality reproductions and low quality reproductions - what’s in a photograph that prevents it from being copied infinitely? What makes your Ansel Adams better than mine?
I get why there’s a qualitative difference between the Matisse poster that hangs over the dryer in the condo laundry room and the real deal. All the Matisse poster can do is remind me of why I love the original (and the artist). But if I had a copy of the Cindy Sherman centerfold, isn’t it possible that a skilled reproduction would be pretty much exactly the same as the one that cost $3.9M? (While on the subject of that $3.9M, I would hope that it went to Ms. Sherman and her gallery, not to a prior investor. I do like the idea of a woman artist commanding that kind of money.)
Maybe if someone paid that amount for a Steichen or a Steiglitz – the only remaining copy, with the original plates or negatives or whatever they were having been destroyed, I would understand the price point better. Maybe part of Cindy Sherman’s modus operandi is to make sure that the original can’t be duplicated, let alone Sorcerer’s Apprentice mass reproduced. Still, wouldn’t a photo of the photo pretty much be the same thing, showing off the photographer’s skill in composing/posing, choice of subject (c’est mo!), etc.?
But what do I know? She’s the MacArthur Foundation genius with a retrospective show at MoMA, not me.
Sherman is not without her critics – here’s Lance Esplund, an art critic for Bloomberg/Businessweek, reviewing the MoMA show.
Ambiguity is mistaken for art. Revealing virtually nothing in her photographs, Sherman turns self-portraiture on its head.
As with Pink Slip, we of course must take Mr. Esplund with a grain of salt. The very notion of a Bloomberg/Businessweek art critic smacks of Philistinism…
Still, as the holder of an MBA, not an MFA, I guess I have to come down on the side of the Bloomberg critic, not the art-lover who paid $3.9M for a photograph. Unless that art-lover was no art-lover, but just a canny investor.
Hmmmmm. So hard to interpret how to place value on a photograph. It must be an art form in itself.