IT TAKES A PILLAGE
To the Editor:
For Barry Schwabsky, card-carrying member of the New York art world, to swallow the let's-trash Hillary line cooked up by the Huns of Arkansas is a surprise [Reviews, Cindy Sherman, January]. What's more surprising is that the pretext is not a photograph of Hillary, or a photograph intended to be Hillary, or a photograph meant to have any thing to do with Hillary, but a bizarre free association concerning an imaginary Sherman character: "Doesn't the one in the slightly flouncy blue dress clutching a teddy bear resemble the newly elected senator from New York, that mistress and slave of her own image?" The next line apparently applies to Hillary, too (or why bother?): "Like the rest of Sherman's new tragicomic grotesques, she evokes Velazquez's wizened Pope Innocent engulfed in the regalia of his office, a human being imprisoned in her own idea of herself."
Of course, we allow a certain license to art writers, so who knows, maybe bringing in Velazquez and the Pope and the teddy bear isn't as strained, pretentious, and inane as it seems. But the photo in question is not shown; the reader has no clue whether the "likeness" is pure invention or somehow discoverable. Even without the Pope, however, the image of Hillary with teddy bear fails to project. What does project is Schwabsky taking a cheap shot.
Of course, Hillary is in good company. Sherman's West Coast women are, Schwabsky says, "pretty much the same kind of people who might have come see to them--privileged but pathetic, inadequate actresses of their own poorly chosen roles." Sherman's Metro Pictures show, he tells us, added eleven "East Coast types": soccer moms, business women, would-be earth mothers, et al. I myself experienced these characters in less savage, even affectionate terms, but either way, we must wonder what roles remain for women, other than doctor and lawyer, that Schwabsky would not find "pathetic" or "poorly chosen."
Barry Schwabsky responds:
OK, so maybe Hillary can't be that inadequate an actress--she did win the election, after all. She even got my vote. Whether Sherman had her explicitly in mind is not known to me, nor did I ever claim otherwise. What I do know is that Sherman is a brilliant and omnivorous observer, and that an artist need hardly docket her observations in order to process them for use in her work--so that even if Sherman were to deny having had Clinton in mind, it would not be a knockout argument against my interpretation; it might simply suggest that she works as much through intuition as through calculation. On the other hand, by quietly (dishonestly, I'd say) dropping the words "meant to be" from her quotation of the passage in my review that says the portraits "were meant to be pretty much the same kind of people who might have come to see them," Seigel makes it sound as if I am also responsible for the idea that the images Sherman made were "meant to" represent "West Coast types" and "East Coast types." But that's what Sherman told Wayne Koestenbaum [Artforum, September 2000], who, like me, saw them as mirroring their potential audience: "Might we not mistake these women for collectors of Cindy Sherman photographs?" What's important is that, even at their most extreme, Sherman's photographic impersonations can evoke a feeling that their subjects are people with whom we are familiar, and that even when they seem to employ simple stereotypes, the stereotypes are ones that people actively assume in their lives but can never really embody. …