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The Irredeemably Boring Egotism of Cindy Sherman

For months the publicity drums have been beating for the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Mounted in the museum’s sixth floor galleries, where contemporary artists are sent once the powers that be have declared them classics, the show has all the trappings of a coronation. Empress Sherman is ready for her close-up. And there are a great many middle-aged critics, collectors, curators, and gallerygoers who regard this artist, who has spent a generation photographing herself as a tramp or a tragedienne, as their hometown heroine. Sherman is the foxy character whose shows at Metro Pictures in SoHo back in the 1980s were Manhattan’s top-rated pop-culture-meets-high-culture roller coaster ride. It doesn’t seem to matter that Sherman’s rise fit ever so neatly with the helium-balloon exuberance of those years when Warholism and Reaganomics joined forces to create the lunatic asylum the art world is today. It was a time when many of the men and women who are now cultural arbiters were young. And bliss it was, or so some will tell you.

But yesterday’s bliss is no defense against today’s blahs. And although nobody wants to come right out and say it, the damndest thing has happened on MoMA’s sixth floor. The Cindy Sherman retrospective suggests a wake at least as much as a coronation. Sherman’s Technicolor tchotchkes are no longer the aggressive statementsthat carried her to stardom in SoHo and Chelsea. I did not like her photographs to begin with. And by now they have lost the only advantage they ever had: their belligerent aura. They do not even inspire distaste. The helium is sputtering out of the balloons at the party. There are storm clouds forming over this Thanksgiving Day Parade of Sherman’s, in which she of course plays all the parts. Even her most ardent critical supporters seem to find something not entirely right about the show; they may be inclined to blame the curator, MoMA’s Eva Respini. In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl, who regards Sherman as “the strongest and finest American artist of her time,” began by complaining about the very first wall text—and those texts are certainly mired in pop politically correct sophistry. The agitprop threatens to turn what her admirers want to imagine are Sherman’s wild inventions into lessons from Sociology 101. Near the end of the show, when Sherman is dressing up as various wealthy, over-the-hill matrons with too much cosmetic surgery and makeup and jewels, a wall text describes the photographs as “reveal[ing] a dark reality lurking beneath the glossy surface of perfection.” The only way to take a sentence like that is as high camp.

As for Roberta Smith, in the Times she described the show as “magnificent if somewhat flawed,” both a “historic occasion” and “something of a missed opportunity.” “The Modern blinked,” she wrote, and argued that the retrospective should have been bigger; Sherman’s “body of work could have easily handled the entire sixth floor.” However one chooses to spin Cindy Sherman’s botched coronation, my impression as I moved through the galleries on a recent weekday afternoon was that museumgoers were not having the blissed-out experiences they had come expecting. I noticed the kind of fixed ironic smiles I recall from the Takashi Murakami retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum a couple of years ago; that’s the look of New York sophisticates who refuse to be taken in. And even visitors who were engaging with the photographs and talking animatedly with friends looked bemused. Could it be that we are so used to seeing camp, kitsch, and trash on TV and the Internet that there is nothing Sherman does that doesn’t seem anticlimactic? What do Sherman’s self-portraits in the guise of various desiccated society matrons tell you that you don’t know after turning on “Real Housewives” for fifteen minutes? What is an artist to do when the uncanny has become the latest banality?

So what has happened? I think it’s pretty simple. What pop culture giveth pop culture also taketh away. Having insinuated herself into the museums by dressing herself in a shopping mall’s worth of middlebrow iconography—she’s the whore, the housewife, the waif, the clown, the porn star, the prom queen, the wallflower,  the romance-novel princess—Cindy Sherman has become a victim of the very clichés she embraced. Pop culture fast-forwards as usual, and Sherman is left on the trash heap with the rest of yesterday’s sensations. Her horror pictures—the ones with piles of dirt and vomit—have about as much oomph as Rick Perry’s run for the White House. And when the content, such as it is, goes south, Sherman is sure to be undone by her seigneurial indifference to formal values. The only works of hers with a genuine poetic spark are the small, black-and-white Untitled Film Stills she did between 1977 and 1980, and this is because the controlled format gives her playacting some underlying structure. I defy anybody to say what might characterize the photographs she has done since 1980 when it comes to space, form, color—the structural principles essential for the construction of a meaningful image.

In our topsy-turvy art world it is holy writ that Cindy Sherman’s photographs are not self-portraits. What else they are, I cannot imagine. No matter. Let the theorists proceed with their theories, undisturbed. What is without doubt is that Cindy Sherman’s work adds up to the biggest artistic ego trip of our time. I have the impression she has enjoyed herself. And—hell—she’s gotten rich in the process. What I wonder about are her facilitators—the curators, critics, dealers, collectors, gallerygoers, and museumgoers who have encouraged Cindy Sherman to camp it up like this for more than thirty years. That the world may ever so slowly be wearying of Sherman’s act is no surprise. Which does not mean her reputation is going to be eclipsed anytime soon. Far too much money is riding on her continued success. In the global art world, yesterday’s sensations are left to rot in public.

 Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.