Thursday, April 24, 2008

Chicago vs. Sherman

During Judy Chicago's lecture last night at MCAD, there was this weird moment when she totally dissed Cindy Sherman, another feminist artist who came to fame in the 1970s. I almost wondered f I had zoned out for a few minutes (I hadn't), because suddenly Chicago was delivering what I considered an irrelevant tirade about one of Sherman's Untitled Film Stills; basically, she spoke, seeming very irritated, about how--even in the art world of the '70s--there was already a strong precedent for images of women looking in mirrors. (She could show us 300 different ones, she claimed, which I kind of don't think is true, but whatever.) And so, Chicago continued, there was absolutely no reason for such a fuss to be made about Cindy Sherman's work, or at least about this particular Untitled Film Still (which, as far as I know, isn't any more famous, or any more significant, than the other images in the series).

I was uncomfortable with this attack for a few reasons, including the obvious one re: feminist infighting. What's bizarre is... well, there are a couple things that seem bizarre about her comments, to me anyway. My brain hurts from painting animation cels all morning, so let's get listy:

a) Her phrasing and tone were so antagonistic. What's her beef with Cindy Sherman?
b) The comments seemed so irrelevant to the rest of her talk, which was about content, context, and continuity in feminist visual art. I was totally paying attention, and the jab seriously came out of nowhere.
c) But, the thing is, she actually had slides to correspond to these comments (that is, one slide of Sherman's work, and one slide from Carrie Mae Weems' Ain't Jokin series--the Snow White/"You Black Bitch" photograph). My point is, this wasn't an extemporaneous outburst. Like her entire talk, which she read verbatim from a sheet of paper, the criticism was scripted. My strong impression was that, for whatever reason, Chicago had to get this poke in, and she didn't integrate it very well into her otherwise constructive, instructive, and worthwhile lecture.
d) The particular Untitled Film Still Chicago criticized is in some ways representative of the series at large: it is a black and white photograph of the artist, young and beautiful, costumed like a character from popular film. Not any particular film, yet it is immediately familiar, cinematic, evocative, and--best of all--convincing; that is, it looks like a still image from a late '60s film noir or suspense thriller. And this image, like the other Stills, is about the act of looking, the active male/passive female dichotomy, and gender as a social construct. That being said, the specific imagery of a woman before a mirror--which is explicitly what Chicago criticized as not being groundbreaking or whatever--is not an image that Sherman comes back to again and again, as far as I know. It's probably not a reflection (no pun intended) of Sherman's work as a whole, so why pick this single image, out of a series of sixty-nine, to rant about?

Seriously, what is the dilly-o? But please don't get me wrong--I admire Judy Chicago. She's a really important figure in visual art and feminism. I probably like Cindy Sherman's work more, I'll confess, but Chicago's stuff is intellectual and groundbreaking, too. It's just that her lecture kind of left a bad taste in my mouth.

P.S. I should note that while criticizing the Still Chicago did say something to the effect of "Cindy Sherman's work is fine, but it shouldn't be seen as a precedent." So she didn't totally de-value Sherman's work, or at least didn't want to be perceived as completely de-valuing it.


  1. Interesting, I recently saw the dinner party and was blown away by it. I like Cindy Sherman too, and I'm surprised about the conflict. You stated it all very well...

  2. Oh, that's right--it has a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum now, right? Anyway, I talked to my art history instructor, whom I basically adore, and she explained the rift that exists between some feminist artists that were working in the 1970s. Chicago's work was labeled Essentialist (a term she vehemently rejected in the lecture I went to), while the work of Sherman (who never even really thought of herself as a feminist) and others was celebrated. And, you know, I have to admit that from my spot in the third wave, there are things that are problematic about Chicago's work, including the Dinner Party... I mean, she relied on the anonymous labor of dozens of women artists who did traditional work in ceramics and textiles. She doesn't credit those women because they weren't conceptually responsible for the work at large. I mean, in 2008 that just doesn't sit right with feminists. But, whatever. It was the '70s and this was one of the first works of "feminist art."