(Originally published in the San Francisco periodical Photo Metro, 1991)
The perennial philosopher, Woody Allen, once proposed that street people who talk to themselves be paired off, so they appear to be having a conversation. Maybe the gag would reveal a great deal about rationalism, spiritualism, ecology, human meaning, perhaps even art. After all, artists are concerned with meaning. But, unless there is someone with whom they share it on some level, does meaning, expression or communication really exist? Hence, the perennial language problem.
Two recent monograms, Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Stills and Mike and Doug Starn, grapple with similar phenomenological issues. The first book features an essay by art critic and philosopher Arthur C. Danto. The second is by Andy Grundberg, writer and critic for the New York Times. Both offer astute, cogent, but very polarized arguments.
When coupled, these books successfully undermine simplistic binary dichotomizations, since the content and form of the artists’ bodies of work deals with the duplicity of representation itself. Mike and Doug Starn use duplicated images of themselves and western art imagery in their grand-scale projects of reconstructing new kinds of mirrors. Cindy Sherman uses her body to star in an endless series of photographic cameos. Sherman addresses the audience as a surrogate replicon, whereas the Starns, in tandem, use the “unique” photographic multiple. The theoretical polarization of the essays on the one hand, and artistic practices of duplication on the other, reveal recent cross-currents in art and photography’s peculiar juncture within it.
According the the texts, Sherman’s work functions as an artistic appropriation of mass culture’s overblown movie glossies, while functioning as document and artifact of her performance art. The Starns’ evolving emphasis is on installation art. Both conceptually oriented art practices typically explore displacements of subjects, missing referents, genre confusion, site specificity, and, the epistemological location of meaningful selves. The ease in which photography is enlisted to these projects makes it look like a cross between archeology and theater.
Sorting through some of the cultural rubble, Grundberg summarizes the Starns’ work into four chapters. 1. Millennium: The late twentieth century art world’s aesthetic crisis between “neo” and “post” modernisms; Starns-style self expressiveness versus what Grundberg deems a Sherman-style end game. 2. Hype: The Starns’ work, unashamed of its own beauty, arrives at the precise moment when the need for beauty acquires a cogent, cohesive voice. 3. Cellophane: The modernist concern with the physical limits of the materials is epitomized by their attack on the photographic print as an independent physical object. 4. Doppelganger: The Starns are identical twins, that is, they are monozygotic, born of the same egg and sharing the same genes. Their work is also a reflection of the 1980s trend toward collaboration in the arts, as Grundberg notes:
Opposed to Marxist art theory, which sees the artist as a cultural producer, a laborer in the aesthetic field, the Starns view the artist as a father figure and shaman who embodies universal moral and spiritual values. Their use of doubles and mirror images reflects their desire to inscribe themselves within this systems of belief.
Danto provides a clear counterpoint to Grundberg’s invocation of Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura as applied to the Starns’ photographic art objects. Danto argues instead for the spirit found in Cindy Sherman’s photographic equivalent of a live vignette, as well as the charge her work takes on as an artifact of popular culture:
The camera, in brief, does not now simply document the pose: the pose itself draws on the language of the still in such a way that even if it were never photographically recorded, the pose would be the photographic equivalent of a “tableau vivant” . . . The still has given her a way into the common cultural mind, obliterating the distances between her self and our selves.
Danto indicates that all of the early images are of The Girl, for whom Cindy Sherman posed – in a way that is incidental and even secondary in any given work, but curiously central and essential to her work when taken as a whole, the sum of its integral parts.
The Girl in these images is always alone, waiting, worried, watchful, but she is wary of, waiting for, worried about, and her vey posture and expression phenomenologically imply The Other: the Stalker, the Saver, the Evil and Good who struggle for her possession.
Grundberg’s mapping of the theoretical oscillations of “post” versus “neo,” modernism, on the other hand, attempts to clarify some of the social and historical implications built into recent conceptual art, especially considering all the artists who use different forms of doubling in their work.
For instance, essentialist arguments of the late sixties feminist and minority genre – used originally to claim and mark specific kinds of difference – have been recently reexamined and challenged. Lucy Lippard’s current work on multiculturalism points out how essentialism has been curiously recuperated at a strategic time when minority self-identification has reached a critical mass. By and large, however, gender identity, especially as it relates to the perception beauty, is now seen as something socially constructed. Whereas Grundberg frames this as a loss of individuality, Danto portrays this insight as the empowerment of the cultural participant.
Sherman’s work investigates these issues, whereas the Starns’ performance-like installation art largely reconstructs them. Since the Starns’ interests lie in reclaiming the loss of romanticism and transcendent beauty, they appropriate European icons, along with the power trappings of the original sites specific to their chosen objects. They re-photograph their source imagery as it hangs displayed in the museums that now own it. Another socially inscribed aspect of their work involves cultural narratives, such as the one about biological or “natural” intuitions attributed to twin brothers. This, in turn, is the stuff upon which classical genesis myths of ancient civilizations are built, as a sort of Oedipal hall of mirrors including Romulus and Remus and founding of Rome or, say, an Able and Cane pastiche.
These two new bodies of photographic work, thus show the workings of conservative and resistant forces involved in the negotiation of meanings in the visual arts today. Cindy Sherman’s part of the conversation, her “embodied” self-directed and conceptual enactments of contemporary culture successfully betrays how seriously the commonplace might pretend to be everyone’s universal.
Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Stills, essay by Arthur C. Danto, published by Rizzoli International, 1990.
Mike and Doug Starn, essay by Andy Grundberg, published by N. Abrams, New York, 1990.