The inner meaning of Cindy Sherman
There’s nothing essentially ‘wrong’ with treating each and every Cindy Sherman photograph in aesthetic terms, as if it were a standalone object, subject only to the rules of aesthetic beauty and craft. You would then be looking at the colours, and shapes, and composition, and the print grain. You would think about the formal arrangement, and the subject matter, and whether it’s better or worse or the same as a similar work by another photographer. You would assess its impact on you, as a function of its size and shape and framing and overall appearance. Perhaps the image reminds you of some other artwork, or perhaps it puts you in mind of a whole train of thought. These are the standard sets of ideas that arise out of the application of classical aesthetic principles.
But if you approach Cindy Sherman through the aesthetics of shape and form, you’ll miss her art.
What does that mean ? It means that the most interesting and provocative aspect of her presentational material is not contained in, or restricted to, the most obvious formal boundaries of the individual artworks, whether viewed singly or collectively, because it happens to be located ‘elsewhere’, in a more inclusive narrative and interpretative realm. This means that the ‘meaning’ of Cindy Sherman’s art is not the meaning of the individual images contained in her individual artworks, because it is another type of meaning altogether, located at the level of her whole approach to wanting to present artworks for public appreciation in the first place. She is not presenting us with generic holiday snaps, or Karsh-type portraits, or Stephen Shore-type Americana; she is presenting us with ‘Cindy Shermans’, and if we want to understand her art, we need to understand what a ‘Cindy Sherman’ is all about.
How do we do this ? To begin with, we have to step back from the details of the pictures themselves, and grasp her approach to art as a whole — as far as we can intuit this whole from the various sources of evidence — and then return to the pictures themselves, to see how they incarnate this approach. This is neither a difficult nor an easy task, as it simply depends on an ability to go up a level from the created works, to the specific ‘vision’ that created them — the creative perspective specific to Cindy Sherman — in order to appreciate it as a special kind of experiential possibility, and one which ultimately gives real meaning to the individual artworks themselves.
So to understand what a ‘Cindy Sherman’ is, you have first to understand as much what she is ‘trying to do’, as understand what she has already done.
You need to be able to inhabit her intention, her inner vision, as much as her achievement. And if you can do that, you can then understand everything that results from that vision, and thereby understand the real meaning of her work. And it’s not possible to intuit the mental vision that created her works from a ‘close aesthetic reading’ of them, because close readings are governed by principles which have nothing to do with visions, and approaches, and inner perspectives.
So what then is a ‘Cindy Sherman’ ?
Being a complex artistic state of mind, it is not that easy to put into words without ruining its essential coherence and character, but it is still possible to identify some of its features in a roundabout, interpretative way. There is, at the root of all her work, a very strong sense of the solipsism of the ‘last woman on earth’, staring fixedly at herself in the mirror of her art, trying both to disguise herself in every possible way while yet holding on to an elusive sense of self. And even when she removes herself from her images she remains fully present in them: she is a steady presence in all her staged situations, always changing form while always remaining the same.
At the most superficial and basic level, her art is about a public sharing of our secret search for ourselves, in which we try on different faces and different masks in the hope that one will fit, while at the same time also enjoying the distancing afforded by masks, and so perhaps not really caring if the search for something like an authentic self ever quite comes to an end. The ‘last woman on earth’ in her loneliness might just turn out to be ‘every woman on earth’ in her solidarity with her sisters, united against an as yet unseen and unidentified enemy. It would be too simplistic to say that this enemy is ‘man’; it is more likely the nagging fear of the inherent limitations of the ‘feminine mask’ itself.
At her most complex, Cindy Sherman’s art is about exploring our ideas of ‘self’ through the images we call to mind when we think of ourselves. Our everyday image of self is usually a ghostly — and heavily idealised — version of the face we think we see in the bathroom mirror, but of course the bathroom image is not necessarily the face, or the head, other people see. And our uncertainty as to the real meaning of our ghostly idea of ourselves leads us into the realm of self-portraiture, where we study endless still photographs of ourselves — in an interminable succession of changing locations — in the hope of some kind of mysterious inner reassurance.
And the key to a ‘Cindy Sherman’ lies somewhere in all this. But to ‘get it’ — to get what her art is all about — you don’t run through of series of intellectual interpretations, and then apply them to a particular case: instead you just ‘get it’ as an intuitive congruence, a matching of minds — you just know what’s she’s thinking, you just connect with her vision — and in this way you share the perspective she is ‘inhabiting’ to inform her art. You just ‘get’ her artistic vision in one go — multi-layered and multidimensional and inexhaustible though it may be — and in getting it, you get to understand her work. There is no other way of doing it, unless you’re prepared to miss out on what she really has to offer.