Cindy Sherman: Subjectivity and Late Modernism

Cindy Sherman: ‘Untitled’

The grey tones of a grey world, norish, negative, cognitive, abstract and abstracted, painful and self-defeating, a world in which the violence of beauty awakens a claim of ugliness against the artificial beauty of fashion and mechanized reproductions. This is the world not of self-discovery but of the typical unglorified image of fairy-tales, horror movies, pornography, the negative and positive movement of death as it imposes or supervenes itself on the blankness of self-exposure. As J.M. Berstein remarks this is the gesture of spaces where representation and ugliness converge, “where the ugly – distortion and fragments – operates as a disruptive counterforce to the compulsive stilling of the beautiful” (255). 1 Like an ancient tragedian Cindy Sherman focuses the lens not of the eye or gaze of mind or self onto the dark contours of her objects, but rather reveals from the immanent depths of an immersive medium the emptiness at the heart of reality. This is not a subjectivist portrayal but a realist horror that illuminates even as it crushes and divests itself of the very anchors of subjectivity that we of the West have for so long fetishized in our fantasmatic images of self and other.

Cynthia “Cindy” Morris Sherman (born January 19, 1954) is an American photographer and film director, best known for her conceptual portraits. In 1995, she was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Through a number of different series of works, Sherman has sought to raise challenging and important questions about the role and representation of women in society, the media and the nature of the creation of art. Her photographs include some of the most expensive photographs ever sold. Sherman lives and works in New York. (Wikipedia: Cindy Sherman)

Against an edgy post-modernist reading of Sherman’s oeuvre by Norman Bryson who delimits her art by a circumscription within the postmodern universe of images as if she were already admittedly a transitional creature, a movement beyond the ‘modern’; as if, and this is crucial such a realm of pure semblance, cut off from its own voiding limits to the culture that gave it birth, distilling images of something distinct and beyond the modernist clichés of a post-Enlightenment reproduction. Instead of this we open ourselves to another reading, a reading in which as J.M. Bernstein remarks confronts us with a continuation rather than a transition out of the very modernity that it confronts agonistically and with full duplicity of cognitive forethought.(256)

Bernstein begins with a particular thread within the work of Adorno and Horkheimer Dialectic of Enlightenment which centers not on the typical disenchantment and demythologization of the world due to the logics of an enlightened,  instrumental reason; but, instead focuses on the disenchantment of the world brought about by the extirpation of animistic thought forms. Quoting from the Excursus they elaborates:

The reason that represses mimesis is not merely its opposite. It is itself mimesis: of death. The subjective mind which disintegrates the spiritualization of nature masters spiritless nature only by imitating its rigidity, disintegrating itself as animistic (DoE, 44-45)

Instrumental reason empties reality of everything but its mathematical form thereby equating death as the final form of life. This whole endeavor to establish a scientification of reality, of an ‘objective order’ is they are telling the very reasoning idiocy of our psychotic world of late-Capitalism. As Zizek reminds us it is all too easy to “unmask” such a “substance,” to show, by means of a phenomenological genesis, how it gradually becomes “reified” and sedimented: the problem is that the presupposition of such a spectral or virtual substance is in a way co-substantial with being-human— those who are unable to relate to it as such, those who directly subjectivize it, are called psychotics.2 This is the epistemological regime of an order of science that establishes our ways of knowing, an epistemology that is constituted by this elision and suppression, its deadliness (Bernstein, 258). This objectified order of the cognitive sciences is a form of what Zizek has termed after Lacan the “big Other”. He links this emergence of the “big Other” to the complex logic of the sacrifice constitutive of the dimension of the sacred, that is, to the rise of the distinction between the sacred and the profane: through the sacrifice, the big Other, the transcendent agency which sets limits to our activity, is sustained. The third link in this chain is hierarchy: the ultimate function of sacrifice is to legitimize and enact a hierarchical order (which works only if it is supported by some figure of the transcendent big Other) (LTN, KL 21667-21670). Zizek goes on to remark,

The sacred is nothing but our own violence, but “expelled, externalized, hypostasized.”  The sacred sacrifice to the gods is the same as an act of murder— what makes it sacred is the fact that it limits or contains violence, including murder, in ordinary life. In those moments when the sacred falls into crisis, this distinction disintegrates: there is no sacred exception, a sacrifice is perceived as a simple murder— but this also means that there is nothing, no external limit, to contain our ordinary violence. (LTN, KL 22775-22970)

Bernstein makes a wry remark about those postmodernists who have fallen for the linguistic turn, who entrapped in their prison house of language, of a language that operates with such epistemological clarity and scientific precision upon the dead world of dead matter, a matter so dead that it vanishes into the linguistic significations of an endless supplementary discourse that is blind to its own discursivity (259). This blatant postmodern self-sufficiency that interminably critiques the structures of its own blindness to the linguistic objects beyond its closed world, the very self-preserving drive toward a self-sufficiency of and autonomy that opposes subject to object, culture to nature, enabling thereby the equally skeptical formation of reductive scientism and relativistic culturalism is the ironic twist in this game of postmodernity.

Sherman’s art does not represent the subject, rather it is the subject itself immanently aligned with its own emptiness that arises from her auric works: the image as materiality animated in the moment of auric release, the broken distended living thing that suddenly awakens in the midst of dissonance. As Adorno tells us “Dissonance is effectively expression … If expression is scarcely to be conceived except as the expression of suffering … expression is the element immanent to art through which, as one of its constituents, art defends itself against immanence that it develops by its law of form. Artistic expression comports itself mimetically, just as the expression of living creatures is that of pain” (AT, 110). Deleuze once remarked on the pinnacle moment of pure expression in which there is “neither an inside nor and outside, but only a continuous creation of space, the spatializing energy of color” (Francis Bacon, 108). Of course he was speaking of non-figural art that avoided abstraction and any sense of narrative story in its depictions; and, in fact, moved toward an infinite relation of pure movement in which there was “nothing left to narrate” (FB, 108).

It is this non-figural form of figuration that Sherman’s photographic work – although on the surface figural – portrays. It is the final margin of an abstract expressionism that has haunted modernity from the beginnings. As Bernstein succinctly states it:

Abstract expressionism retrospectively defines modernism not as a desire for presence or aesthetic purity or beauty or even sublimity, but as a quest for auratic individuality, for an illusion of otherness in the animistic/undead sense.(Bernstein, 264)

One could call this an art of the gap, an art that situates itself in the void, in the crack of the world and of the psyche, that as Deleuze once said “paints between things” (FB, 85). Deleuze went on to say that this is art that is both catastrophe and diagrammatic, at once formal and the breaking of all form, the freeing of the auric into the “rhythm of matter and material”; no longer bound by optical coordinates we enter the space of ‘action painting’, the ‘frenetic dance’ of “the painter around the painting, or rather in the painting, which is no longer stretched on an easel but nailed, unstretched, to the ground” (FB, 86). Or, in the case of Sherman we see the photo-montage merge with matter and material in a line that is at once real and illusionary, squandering the walls of an exhibit, drifting along the contours of life like fragments of distorted image of our true lives.

This is an art which abandons art and a totalizing gaze, and destroys the visual sovereignty of the viewer and painter alike, showing the blindness of both viewer and painter; and, admitting of an excess of line and volume that no longer hinges on our immediate access to its mystery. This is an art of the non-given: an auric illumination that is revealed only in the moment of its death. Action painting is performative, it situates both artists and viewer in the crack of the world, it erases the ‘transcendental illusions’ that have filled this crack and releases the hidden truth of its auratic emptiness. It’s at this moment that the cruelty of beauty intervenes: “beauty has always contained a moment of cruelty through which the recalcitrant and threatening materiality of nature and the human body were formed, tamed, idealized: Art’s own gesture is cruel. In aesthetic forms, cruelty becomes imagination: something is excised from the living, from the body of language, from tones, from visual experience. The purer the form and the higher the autonomy of the works, the more cruel they are” (AT, 50).

If as Bernstein tells us Cindy Sherman’s work is a return to a mimetic cognitivism, a realist horror that breaks down the barriers between things, and enters the crack or gap between them instead, revealing the animistic power of the void itself then her art touches on that ancient stream of tragedy and comedy that litters the dark worlds of ancient Greece and our own philosophical heritage. Zizek speaks of the work of Jean-Pierre Dupuy, of the great theoretical breakthrough that links the emergence of the “big Other” to the complex logic of the sacrifice constitutive of the dimension of the sacred, that is, to the rise of the distinction between the sacred and the profane: through the sacrifice, the big Other, the transcendent agency which sets limits to our activity, is sustained. The third link in this chain is hierarchy: the ultimate function of sacrifice is to legitimize and enact a hierarchical order (which works only if it is supported by some figure of the transcendent big Other) (Zizek Less Than Nothing, KL 21666-21670). Sacrifice was at the heart of both tragedy and comedy as forms of cultural defense mechanism to channel the great power of the cultural “big Other”.

This is the realm of the horrific of what Bernstein termed the form of the ‘ugly’: the illusory appearing of the monstrous sensuous particularity that is the violated and brutalized remnant of the corporeal subject. (Bernstein, 296). In horror, all that is left of nature is the inversion of natural form: the continuous dismemberment of the – normative – unity of the animate organism. (Bernstein, 297). Sherman in many of her works shows us the face of death, or finitude in its extreme excess, as disgust animated. Her work forces one to face the void in all its extreme horror, by forcing us to turn, to turn away from that which we cannot face, the very form of death itself. But it is in that turning that the aura beyond that fragmented material of dismembered flesh affectively awakens in us the very power of disgust that makes us touch what is so old and prevalent in us: the power of our own subjectivity, the materiality of our subjectivity, the thing we did not know existed: the thing that is our own finitude, the disgusting thing that we realize is also our own self, our fleshly embodied materiality.

Sherman created a series of enigmatic photos of masks, one of the most ancient of art forms that conceal both the fear and terror of the Real. Adorno described the mode of the ugly in this form:

What appears ugly is in the first place what is historically older, what art rejected on its path toward autonomy, and what is therefore mediated in itself. The concept of the ugly may very well have originated in the separation of art from its archaic phase: it marks the permanent return of the archaic, intertwined with the dialectic of enlightenment in which art participates. Archaic ugliness, the cannibalistically threatening cult masks and grimaces, was the substantive imitation of fear, which it disseminated around itself in expiation. As the mythical fear diminished with the awakening of subjectivity, the traits of this fear fell subject to the taboo whose organon they were: they first became ugly vis-à-vis the idea of reconciliation, which comes into the world with the subject and his nascent freedom (AT, 47)

What the mask hides in all its hideous glory is the dark truth of subjectivity itself: the void that is this self-reflecting nothingness: blind, fragmented, and materially grounded. Maybe this is what Deleuze meant when he said “Everything is now brought into the clear, a clarity greater than that of the contour and even of light” (FB, 129).

1. J.M. Bernstein. Against Voluptuous Bodies. (Stanford University Press, 2006).
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 21663-21665). Norton. Kindle Edition.
3. Theodor W. Adorno. Aesthetic Theory. (University of Minnesota, 1997).

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