Cindy Sherman and Feminist Art

Cindy Sherman via MoMA

Cindy Sherman via MoMA

Cindy Sherman and feminist art

When we reflect on female artists, there’s a pull to automatically label any woman creating art as creating “feminist” art. While many women in the arts have proudly embraced the label of feminist artists and have intentionally implemented these themes into their work, other women have hesitated to put this title on their work. Cindy Sherman falls into this second camp of artists. 

The photographer is hailed for her innovative and evocative self-portrait work, with her various series typically portraying Sherman in different poses and settings that challenge what could typically be seen as the male gaze and reclaim it through the eyes of Sherman. This idea of reclamation is what makes many viewers so keen to label her work as feminist, but Sherman has stated that this is never the full intent of her pieces. 

Cindy Sherman via NYT
Cindy Sherman via NYT

“The work is what it is, and hopefully, it’s seen as feminist work or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.”

Sherman explains in an interview with artist Betsy Berne for TATE

It’s important to note that Sherman is not anti-feminist by any means; in fact, quite the opposite. However, she emphasizes that her work is not made with a feminist agenda on her end. This leads to pondering what exactly defines a piece of art as feminist in nature and whether the artistic intent is an important part of this artistic movement.

Cindy Sherman via Hauser & Wirth
Cindy Sherman via Hauser & Wirth

Defining feminist art

Before attempting to define feminist art, I believe it’s important to establish the distinction between a feminist lens and actual feminist art. A feminist lens is a way in which we examine and critique media with special emphasis on how the work portrays women and how this portrayal impacts our current culture and view of women. Any piece of media, including Cindy Sherman's, can be examined through a feminist lens. Because of the subjectiveness of this critique, feminist art must be its own separate being. 

Feminist art does exist as its own movement of art. It rose to prominence during the second wave of feminism in the United States. This wave of feminism is believed to originate from the 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique,” by Betty Friedan. This landmark novel aimed to address “a problem with no name.” This problem is the dissatisfaction of American women in their domestic roles in a post-WWII and baby boom society. The second wave of feminism addressed feminist issues such as workplace equality, reproductive rights, and access to higher education. 

Laura Kina, Aram Han Sifuentes in her studio, 2019, courtesy of Smithsonian Archives of American Art via Hyperallergic
Laura Kina, Aram Han Sifuentes in her studio, 2019, courtesy of Smithsonian Archives of American Art via Hyperallergic

Art has always served as a reflection of the culture of the time, and this second wave of art has always served as a reflection of the culture of the time. This second wave of feminism is no exception. Feminist art was born in tangent with this second wave. It aims to portray the experiences and perceptions of gender in a way that advocates for equity. Feminist art strives to challenge society’s view of women and change it for the better. This can be done in a multitude of ways. Whether it be through women's empowerment, exposing the injustices women face, or commenting on the expectations versus the reality of our views on women. 

Some of the prominent names of this movement include Barbara Krueger, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, and the anonymous group known as the Guerilla Girls. The Guerilla Girls is a collective of feminist artists established in 1985 that fights sexism and racism in the art industry. The title Guerilla Girls refers to their “guerilla” methods, in which the group deploys public performances, graffiti, billboard takeovers, demonstrations at museums, posters, and more to essentially culture bomb audiences into seeing their messages. 

Barbara Krueger, Your Body via Artland Magazine
Barbara Krueger, Your Body via Artland Magazine

Barbara Krueger used graphic design and pop art to address her audiences and directly challenge their conception of womanhood. Her messages offered tongue-in-cheek humor that satirized female stereotypes, and she used found imagery to give the appearance of commercialized media. One of her pieces shows a hand that appears to be holding a block of text reading, “I shop, therefore I am.” 

This references the Latin phrase “Cogito, ero sum,” which, translated to English, reads “I think therefore I am” and is one of the founding principles of Rene Descartes's philosophy. Krueger takes a humorous approach to this phrase to critique the stereotype that women don’t have deeper, cognitive pondering and instead prefer shallow, simple experiences. The direct exposure to how society assumes women think, and the goal to make viewers challenge their views on this assumption is what makes this piece feminist art. 

Sherman’s inclusion in the feminist art movement

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills #03, 1977
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills #03, 1977 via artlead

Sherman’s work most likely gets lumped into this movement because it showcases her body and presence in different scenarios and situations that encourage viewers to craft narratives around the piece without pressure from Sherman. You’ll see that often, throughout her work, she elects to leave her pieces untitled; this is part of her strategy to give control over interpretation and meaning to the viewers themselves. This power to examine a woman’s existence in art creates a feminist lens foundation because we, as viewers, have to ask ourselves if we are projecting certain ideas and narratives because Sherman is a woman or if it’s just what the image is actually portraying. 

In her series “Untitled Film Stills,” Sherman photographs herself in self-portraits designed to look like they could have been pulled from a movie. There are 69 pieces in total in this collection, each designed to feel hauntingly familiar as if the imagined film exists. Because the photos are meant to emulate a movie and have no real film counterpart, the audience gets to imagine what story Sherman could have been thinking as she shot each image. 

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills #43, 1979 via artlead
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills #43, 1979 via artlead

“Untitled #48” has Sherman perched on the side of a highway, luggage beside her. For this photo, Sherman dons a blonde wig, long skirt, and sneakers, giving the imagined character in the image an ingenue-type appearance. In film and literature, the ingenue represents an innocent young woman who is usually making her way into the world and coming of age. The ingenue is also typically seen as the most desirable form of womanhood due to its youth, naivety, and virginal essence. But again, Sherman never states this narrative. It is the one we give the photo of, given our perception of womanhood. 

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills #50, 1979 via artlead
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills #50, 1979 via artlead

In each picture, you could argue that Sherman is taking a female caricature, often designed by the gaze of a male director, and reclaiming it in her own right. Which would, by the definition of the movement, be feminist art. However, Sherman never states whether this is her intent. This is a critical component of feminist art; a feminist intent drives the choice and composition of an image and is meant to make audiences come away from the image with a new outlook on equality, gender stereotypes, or the experience of women. Sherman’s photo doesn’t necessarily do this. 

Cindy Sherman, Centerfold Untitled #96 via MoMA
Cindy Sherman, Centerfold Untitled #96 via MoMA

Sherman’s photo series “Centerfold” portrays the photographer as her interpretation of centerfold girls. Centerfold is the term for a photo that takes up two pages in a magazine and typically references pornography magazines where the centerfold would be deemed the most attractive woman in that issue. “Centerfold” was originally commissioned to appear in the art magazine Artforum but was later rejected by the publication. 

For this series, Sherman’s body is laid horizontally with the angle of the photo, giving viewers this sense of towering over Sherman as she stares off to the side. “Untitled #87” is her first installment of this series. She is illuminated by what appears to be a spotlight and is clutching a blanket. The curve of the fabric she holds mimics the natural curve of her body; a pair of underwear peaks through the waistband of her pants, giving the photo a more suggestive nature. Even though Sherman is fully clothed and not doing anything outright provocative, the callback to other centerfold imagery gives the piece a subtle sultriness. 

Cindy Sherman, Centerfold Untitled #87 via artnet
Cindy Sherman, Centerfold Untitled #87 via artnet

But again, the interpretation of the image is entirely up to the viewer. There is no overarching condemnation or empowerment of the centerfold concept. Sherman does not tell viewers that the sexualization traditionally associated with these images is either good or bad. The viewers are allowed to place their own projections onto the image. For this photo to be considered a feminist art piece, it would need to have some sort of agenda attached to it, and Sherman’s work, for the most part does not. She uses photography as a way of exploring how we interpret the media of the world around us. Her images are meant to call back familiar scenes and moments, and reimagine them as her own. Sherman’s work lends itself to being a great source to view through a feminist lens, but that does not correlate it as feminist art. 

So why does Cindy Sherman not claim a feminist label?

In the interview done with Betsy Berne for TATE, where Sherman first expresses that her art isn’t intentionally created with a feminist message attached, and that Sherman doesn’t want to “have to explain” herself on her decision as to why she doesn’t label her art this way. And at the end of the day, she doesn’t owe an explanation on her work, mostly because the work speaks for itself.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #659,2023,  © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth via artnet
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #659,2023,  © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth via artnet

What I mean by this statement is that one of the overarching motifs throughout Sherman’s work is the ability for viewers to craft their own narratives around a single image. These narratives can be as intricate or baseline as you desire, because ultimately, Sherman intentionally does not provide a set narrative to her images as to make them more universal. Sherman creates imagery that becomes timeless by subduing the need for a rigid label about what her art is “trying” to do. It is not tied down to a period of thinking or a strict definition of a movement, it exists in its own sphere. 

When a woman creates art there seems to be this painful need for people to think she is doing something radical, that for a woman to create is somehow subverting gender roles or reclaiming power. While there is no denying that the spaces in which art exists are heavily male dominated, to cast the label that every woman creating any form of art must be feminist in nature is actually counterproductive to the principles of the feminist movement itself. 

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #646, 2023, © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #646, 2023, © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth via artnet

Perhaps Sherman’s denouncement of her art being part of this movement is a reaction to the idea that her art is only special because she is a woman creating it. This aching need to find a deeper message behind her work begins to take away from the technical brilliance and the actual inspiration behind her photography. Sherman’s work is for the people to take in and claim conceptually within their own thoughts. If her audience resonates with an image because of its portrayal of womanhood, or perhaps it makes them think of their views of women, that is simply what that viewer took from her art. However, Sherman doesn’t need the label of feminism to drive why she believes her work matters; her skill and creativity do this for her.

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