Art and Activism (Jacqueline Amjadi)

A member of the Pictures Generation, Cindy Sherman is one of the most important contemporary artists out there. Coming of age in the 1960s, Sherman had a front row seat to many political and social injustices like Watergate and MLK Jr.’s assassination, to name a few. Through photography and film Sherman has evaluated the media, and society as a whole, through a critical lens. Her work is especially meaningful in terms of constructions of identity and the role of the female in the 1970s. Highly influenced by Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure piece, Sherman focuses on capturing and isolating the male gaze.

Sherman’s work is unique in that she is the source material for all of her photographs. She inserts herself into the very media she is critiquing. While every one of her photos is a portrait of herself in a different costume – hair, makeup, clothing, and persona – she is all of them and none of them at the same time. Sherman uses herself as a blank canvas in order to bring attention to female stereotypes. 

One particular series that stands out is a part of Sherman’s early work, entitled Film Stills. Film Stills imitates the classic Hollywood representations of female stars of the 1950s and 60s. Through such appropriation Sherman takes back control of the gaze and makes the role of the viewer blatantly obvious. Untitled Film Still #6 consists of Sherman lounging scantily clothed with a blank stare on her face. She is asking us to stereotype her as a young blonde, vain and clueless. Yet, Sherman is still the constructor of the image, and she shows us she controls the picture taking with the clicker in her hand. 

Another influential piece of the times was Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author. Barthes questioned why we attach so much meaning to authorship and urged the erasing of the artist’s genius/ego. This meant there was no longer a dependency on the author, but on the viewer to interpret content. This is interesting to compare to Sherman’s work, as she is technically in all of her work, as well as to the work of Princess Hijab.

 Somewhat anonymous, Princess Hijab is a street artist who defaces Parisian billboards, covering models with hijabs. Critics and observers quickly wanted to link her religion to her work – yet much information about her background is still unknown. “And that she uses such a contested icon to wreak artistic revenge on the dual constructs of advertising and social prejudice means her work is ultimately as much about the interpretation of others as it is about her own intent. ‘People are confused by me,’ admits PH. ‘Some say I am pro-feminist, some say I am antifeminist; some say I am pro-Islam, others that I am anti-Islam. It’s all very interesting—but at the end of the day, I am above all an artist.’ (Bitch Magazine)


(Roberta Smith on James Franco’s New Film Stills)



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