Cindy as a Feminist Courtesan and a Muscular Bacchus! And after Cindy Sherman?

Jessica will be our guide on this article. Just a few musings…..
1. What is Cindy Sherman’s attitude toward art history as a “genre” (as it were)?
2. Do you believe this as gospel truth?
3. What are the subversive elements of Sherman’s reinterpretation of Raphael’s portrait of the courtesan/La Fornarina?
4. The gaze: discuss!
5. Arthur Danto regards this work as a complex transaction between the “original and her tableaux vivant comment on it.” Unpack this critique.
6. Why was Bacchus often a guise for artistic self-portraits?
7. Where else has Melancholia reared its head in this course?
8. Discuss the subversive qualities in Sherman’s appropriation of this portrait, if any exist. Do you agree with the author’s reasons for the literal character of this portrait?
9. Do you feel that copies of “masterpieces” have power over their prototypes?

Vylencia will be leading the discussion next week on the Self-Portraits of Nikki S. Lee, Anthony Goicolea, and David Henry Brown, Jr.
1. Lee’s work demonstrates the constructed nature of identity in a very pointed, often humorous manner. What does her work say about assimilation in society?
2. How do you think the various groups she joins react to her presence? To what do you attribute her “socially fluid” nature?
3. Goicolea’s work deals with adolescent self-obsession and sexuality. Yet his works are also quite poignant. Why is that?
4. On page 49 the author states “Vanity is the backbone of all art; at its essence, all art says, look at my view of the world, it is better, more accurate, more beautiful, than yours.” Discuss!
5. What position must the viewer assume in Goicolea’s works? Why is this so fraught with ambiguity?
6. Do you agree that the artist’s sexual orientation colors the reception of his work?
7. Brown explores identity in terms of celebrity. And not just any celebrity. Out of the works discussed in this article, which did you respond to on a conceptual level?
8. Discuss Brown’s opinion of himself vis a vis the rest of mankind. Classism: discuss! Did you agree with the author’s assessment of Brown’s body of work?
9. Dalton characterizes these artists as conceptualists who use photography to explore issues of social identity. In what ways is the work of Cindy Sherman similar? In what ways is it different?


21 responses

  1. Hello All,

    I wanted to post my questions right away, so everyone would have a chance to comment on them. I really enjoyed this article and found her argument very logical. I have to say that the format was surprisingly successful for me, although I wish she spent more time discussing the choice of Bacchus in the second section. I hope you guys enjoy this article too, and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Thursday!

    1. Joanna Woods-Marsden suggests that the painting of Fornarina may be an image of a type rather than a portrait of a specific individual – as an early example of belle donne. Let’s discuss this, what do you think? Marsden also suggests that the face of Fornarina was reworked by Giulio Romano, Raphael’s leading pupil. Do we agree with this?
    2. One of the things Joanna Woods-Marsden kept mentioning was that Sherman constructed herself as completely disengaged from art history. After reading this article, do you agree with this statement, or do you think Sherman has more knowledge of art history than she admits to?
    3. Marsden argues that Sherman’s Untitled #205 is an “astute feminist comment on the profoundly patriarchal culture that both produced Raphael’s work and still widely survives today”. She supports this theory because Sherman removes the male representation of the female, as well as depicting herself in a way that would have appalled the Renaissance audience. Does Sherman’s confrontational gaze make this work a feminist comment because she has removed the desire for the male gaze?
    4. As a Classics major, I couldn’t resist asking this question. Joanna Woods-Marsden states that many artists would depict themselves as Bacchus in self-portraits to “assert traditional ideas about artistic creation and the divine inspiration”. Knowing that the muses actually controlled art and that Bacchus was not viewed as a “complete god” by the Olympians, how does this affect the interpretation and reasoning for choosing Bacchus as the artistic subject?
    5. Marsden states that Sherman’s Untitled #224 is the closest and most literal imitation of a historical portrait. Why do you think that she chose to make this work so literal in contrast to her Untitled #205?

    • Hello all! I found that the author made sound argument, with decent visual analysis of the pieces she described, and good support.
      I wanted to discuss the “occhi biechi e lascivi” notion that averted eyes are seductive. In terms of our gaze, can women ever win? If we dare look directly at the [male] viewer, then we apparently castrate or in the least, intimidate them; but for Raphael’s Fornarina, to look away is to elicit/invite male attention, being charming.
      In terms of Jess’s fourth question, given the mythological background Bacchus has as a demigod, perhaps it is his half-humanity that made him all the more relatable, especially the “mood sings” and bipolar nature (of Bacchus but also of wine’s qualities to arouse revelry/ frenzy). Sherman may have also chosen to represent herself as Bacchus due to his androgyny, or to play to the artist ego (Look at me, I surpass even royalty!) She also may be commenting on celebrity…

  2. I really enjoyed this article and found it immensely interesting and easy to follow. It does seem, however, that the credit we so enjoyed in Adelaide, has been taken away from Cindy. I found this very aggravating and found myself doubting other claims simply because Woods-Marsden gave little to no credit to Sherman. I have to ask, “Why!?!?!?”
    As to Jessie’s question 3, I really enjoyed this commentary and interpretation of the piece. I think that this is the more subversive of the two presented. I think there should have been more discussion on the fake breasts represented (because we haven’t talked about bosoms enough this semester!) I found this to be more interesting than her head dress, which Woods-Marsden claims would have been the most disturbing element of the portrait. As to question 5, I wonder if she made it literal in order to present herself more subversively, that is to say, she is a woman representing herself, convincingly, as a male god. Her ability to do so creates even more discussion around the piece. I cannot wait to hear what everyone else thinks!

    • Hello portrait friends!

      In response to Dr. Sadler’s question 9: “do you feel that copies of ‘masterpieces’ have power over their prototypes?” No, I don’t necessarily think that the copy has power over its prototype. Just because it invokes the original/prototype doesn’t mean that that prototype is diminished. In fact, the copy is indebted to the original. Without it, there wouldn’t be that same inspiration for the copy. I like how Marsden put it: “artists like Sherman have appropriated the art of the past to use it as a springboard to innovation” (emphasis mine).

      In response to Jess’s question about Sherman being completely disengaged from art history: I am really not convinced about this. I am not an artist by any means, but I find it hard to believe that anyone interested in being an artist professionally would not have some sort of background in art history, either by visiting museums or flipping through art history books. What I find interesting is at the end of the article when Marsden quotes Sherman as saying, “I guess I am poking fun at [art history] and trying to say that art isn’t really that serious.” Doesn’t this quote refute the idea of Sherman not knowing anything about art history? So yes, I do think Sherman has more knowledge of art history than she admits to, and I also think she has more knowledge than Marsden gives her credit for.

      Look forward to talking about this with you all! See you all on Thursday!!


    • Whatever happened to artistic license?!
      On page 36, Woods-Marsden writes:
      “However, she misunderstood the pose, as did Norman Bryson, when he wrote that Caravaggio’s Bacchus “leans seductively on his elbow.”30 Where Caravaggio’s Bacchus holds the green grapes possessively, close to the heart, Sherman, not understanding their significance or artistic import, merely holds them up, mockingly, for display.”
      Did Sherman really misunderstand the pose? I believe if she was holding the grapes this way, she could be mocking several things, including masculinity as represented by brute strength (Look, I have large muscles), and the art world’s tendency to take itself too seriously. I say art world because not only does it seem art historians nitpick at details in an effort to seem “right,” but artists’ slightly egotistic potrayal of self as god/dess.
      That being said, I am in agreement with Natalie here, that it may be more subversive for Sherman to paint herself as a man, however androgynous. Also, to be a muse or one of the three graces or a nymph was to be expected since 17th or 18th century history paintings.

  3. It’s so widely told, and propagated by the artist herself, that Cindy Sherman does not find herself wildly influenced by art history. But I have to echo Natalie and Jenna, it seems ludicrous that Sherman is not as informed as she lets on. Whether she visited the Palazzo Barberini or not, these reinventions of existing portraits are steeped in art historical significance. Sure, art historians are always looking into the smallest of details and prescribing sometimes fantastical theories onto works of art, but it seems naive to believe that Cindy Sherman isn’t doing anything more than what she says she’s doing.

    For question 3, I’m struck by the way that Sherman is returning a confrontational gaze to the viewer, but at the same time she’s doing it dressed as a man in her Bacchus portrait. I’m not quite sure how this plays in but I think that it’s functioning in a much different way than say Olympia (obviously because of the way that Sherman is performing as someone else… but I think you get what I mean). Woman returning a gaze vs. woman dressed as a man returning a gaze… hmmm.

    Jess, you’ll probably have much more knowledge about all of this, but I also think it’s interesting that she chose to dress as Bacchus because of the idea of bacchic inspiration. I think I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow. Right now I’m still trying to formulate thoughts!

    This was a cool article and I’m sure you’ll have lots to say, Jess! See you all in class.

  4. Hey guys! sorry I’m posting so late, I have not been feeling very well… I really liked this article and I just wanted to put a video link on the blog about cindy sherman and her process because it makes her seem even more disconnected from the art hisory side of things as an artist. I mean, I’m sure that she knows some, but not to the extent in which her photographs are a commentary on the master paintings. Therefor I agree with Marsden that she must have known “ver little.”

    Anyways, here is the like:

    It’s fun to watch.

    I love how the author gives beautifully written visual analyses throughout the article and also makes a lot of sense with his arguments by giving a fair amount of background information on the art.

    I also likes how he goes into the portrait side of things and says that the original BAcchus by Carravaggio was actually a self reflection and therefor a portrait of the artist himself creating a commentary on standards and norms of that time.

    Also, at the end I love that Sherman sad she is poking fun at art and that we should not take it as seriously as some other people take it.

  5. The whole time I was leading about Lee, I was thinking to myself, is she exploiting these people? Is she saying that it is easy to become these people just by making outer appearance decisions? I would not be happy if I were in a bad situation in life and she just waltzes in and decides to act like she is like me, I would know it was a fake performance. I am not as convinced by her portraits as the author is!

    Also, I think Goicolea’s work is fabulous. They are so humorous (yet creepy at the same time)!!

    Also, Brown is hilarious. I find it really interesting that he would use his disguises to trick others into making assumptions about him. GENIUS!

    I think self portraiture is doing just fine after Cindy Sherman taking her performative aspects and shaping them into whole new processes while simultaneously allowing social commentary to emerge from within these portraits. Love it!

  6. I agree with Sarah, I was quite troubled by the way in which she just decides to “enter” into a specific culture. I mean, in some ways, it is very anthropologist-esque in that she becomes involved with a certain ethnic/cultural group and wants to document their existence, and I do agree with what the author says about how social identity is indeed constructed (49). Yet the flip side is that it does not seem like she wants to shed light on a certain group, or to get an audience interested in the group. It seems quite fake, disingenuous, and maybe even exploitive and condescending. I really do not find work made at the expense of someone else/someone’s culture to be very “arty.”

    Goicolea is interesting! I had never heard of him before this article; but, unlike with Lee, I was able to see the humor in his “cinematic” works (50). I appreciate that he plays all the “characters” in his work. With Lee, it’s as if she just goes up to people and says “Oh you’re kind of weird, let me try to look like you and make it a Kodak moment!” (obviously, I am putting words in her mouth, but that is how her “method” sounds from this article). Also, in “Whet,” the way the author described how “Goicolea sets up a cycle of mediated desire as never-ending as a hall of mirrors”(50) reminded me of the mise-en-abyme phenomenon in art (and literature, etc.); it’s something we have not really talked about in this class, but I do always thinks it make for an interesting discussion topic; maybe we could discuss this tomorrow?

    Brown’s work is interesting. However, is it bad to say that I really miss the days of art when, in order to be an artist, one had to actually have immense talent? Brown is very talented in the conceptual realm, and I love the social commentaries that pervade his work. But, I don’t know, maybe I am old fashioned, but his pictures do not really seem all that “special,” especially if you don’t know what he is trying to achieve with them. I definitely agreed with the author when she spoke of his self-portraits and “Carpet Rollers” series: “though Brown might play at slumming, it is obvious where he believes himself to belong” (54)—definitely, we might say that he believes himself to be in a position of superiority. So in that way, I can see comparisons between him and Lee (with her rather patronizing group photos [that she doesn’t even snap herself!!! Brown doesn’t snap his either!!]).

  7. Sarah — when I was reading about Lee’s work I too was a little bit hesitant to fully support it quite as adamantly as Dalton does, but after looking through a lot of her project images online, I think my mind has been changed. I can’t pinpoint it right now, but as Dalton suggests, I don’t think she’s simply assimilating or exploiting these groups… or maybe she is! Ack! I don’t know. We’ll figure it out tomorrow!

    I desperately wanted more images in this article. I think it would have strengthened it a lot. On page 53, I think the idea that Goicolea is playing multiple “characters,” and as Dalton puts it, in the case of “Whet” “exploits his own body as well as a possible turn on to others, while quite clearly getting off on his own images as well,” is fascinating! I’d like to discuss all of these layers tomorrow.

    Even though it’s the opposite of what he is doing, when I read about David Henry Brown Jr’s work I was reminded of these photos where someone photoshopped in celebrities to their holiday party.

    I promise I’ll have something much more intelligent and non-tangential to say during discussion about his work. See you all in the morning!

  8. This was certainly an interesting article and packed quite a punch for so few pages. The entire time I was reading it, however, I felt awfully old fashioned. I wish there could have been more academic language used throughout, but that may just be me.

    As to Lee, I completely agree that her work is incredibly problematic in a way that the author absolutely overlooks. She does appear to be using individuals in social groups purely for her own gain. One wonders if she stayed “friends” with them after the pictures were taken. I found certain series, such as “The Stripper Project” to be particularly problematic. She became an exotic dancer and befriended others who “made her over” and actually worked as a stripper. While certainly interesting, the women in these situations may or may not have chosen to be there. This seems especially exploitative. I also wonder if the obvious issues Lee has with stereotyping and race is simply due to the fact that she was born and raised in Korea and thus, all of the stereotypes are new to her. This to me makes it seem even more as if she is exotifying certain racial and social groups.

    Much like Sarah, I think that Goicolea’s work is creepy, but for reasons other than those discussed in the article. I found the author to be almost as problematic as the artists. To say that Goicolea “gets off” on his own work because he is gay seems incredibly bothersome and even unacceptable, but perhaps I am misreading or overreacting.

    As to Brown’s work, while I found it to be an interesting concept, I do think that the art could not stand alone without context. In this way, as Jenna noted, it is much like Lee’s.

  9. I find Nikki S. Lee’s work similar to Clifford Owens, an African-American artist who was featured in Dleverance! at the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center last fall. They both take photographs with specific yet random groups of people, but Owens takes the photographs instead of fitting himself in the shot. They make similar statements about socialization and assimliation. The again, Lee also reminds me of Laurel Nakadate in that she gets in her subjects’ personal space…

    I love this quote by the author on pg 49, because I find it truthful:
    “Vanity is the backbone of all art; at its essence, all art says, look at my view of the world, it is better, more accurate, more beautiful than yours. ” Do you guys agree?
    I believe the class consensus is that Goicolea’s work is hilarious.

  10. Ok, so I’m definitely curious to see how class discussion will approach this article. I have to agree with Natalie that this article seemed to lack academic language. I found the examples to be effective, but lacking in number. If she had used more, I feel the article would have been more successful. It felt largely unbalanced with 3 examples from Nikki S. Lee, 1 visual example from Goicolea, and 2 from David Henry Brown. Is it just me or what, I couldn’t help but wonder if Jennifer Dalton couldn’t get the licensing to use some of the images in her article, so she described them instead ex: “Whet”.

    She clearly had some insightful things to say about each artist, but I felt they could have each been their own articles. She didn’t seem to have a major argument and just flowed into each artist with minimal transitions.

    As for each artist, I felt that Nikki S. Lee would have been that person in high school who’s goal was to appear in all the academic club photos, David Henry Brown would be the person always reading the publicity magazines, and Goicolea would be someone Freud would have begged to examine 🙂

    That’s all for now, but I can’t wait to talk about this interesting article in class tomorrow!

  11. So much to discuss in the Cindy Sherman article! I think the author is correct in claiming that perhaps we should read Sherman’s “Untitled #224” as more of an appropriation of the artist’s image (Caravaggio) rather than a “divinely intoxicated artist” (36). In some of my research for my senior seminar I came across Sherrie Levine’s work. Levine appropriates work from famous MALE artists and by doing so allows for audiences to experience and contextualize them in new ways. By choosing male artists she critiques both the undervalued role of female artists throughout art history and examines the idolization of “the masters” work.

    Perhaps Sherman was introducing some of these ideas in this piece.

    Here is Levine’s appropriation of Duchamp’s “Fountain”: Brilliant!

  12. I would love for you to discuss in what ways Levine’s work is a feminist answer to Duchamp’s Fountain. I think Sherman’s work is subversive on so many levels and I love the role that gender plays in her work. I hope that we can discuss this aspect of her work in both these paintings.

  13. 8. Discuss the subversive qualities in Sherman’s appropriation of this portrait, if any exist. Do you agree with the author’s reasons for the literal character of this portrait?
    “But perhaps this photograph should be read less as a reworking of the divinely intoxicated artist and more as an appropriation of this particular artist’s self-image.” -page 36
    I really liked that the article pointed out Sherman’s decision to not seek out a great deal of information about the art she was appropriating, but I think that fact is a double-edged sword, in that, while she can create purely off of her assumptions of the piece and create images that are driven by what she finds important, this also means that she might not focus on parts of an image that others deem important, such as the way Bacchus grips the handful of grapes in Caravvagio’s piece. It definitely seems, in these two pieces, that the first of La Fornarina seems to be making larger statements on femininity and the male gaze, the Bacchus piece is much more personal for Sherman. I’d love to know more about what other people think about these two pieces!

    1. Lee’s work demonstrates the constructed nature of identity in a very pointed, often humorous manner. What does her work say about assimilation in society?
    I loved Lee’s work and how even though she is coming from her own already diverse personal identity, she purposefully goes into areas of society where she would normally not be seen, and fits in fine. She understand the constructed aspects of society and culture so well, and proves it through her photographs.
    7. Brown explores identity in terms of celebrity. And not just any celebrity. Out of the works discussed in this article, which did you respond to on a conceptual level?
    I’d love to see what Brown thinks of his works in regards to the image of Donald Trump now as compared to the photos he was taking in 1999. In Brown’s work, he and a celebrity are the subjects, does this change the way the portrait dynamic changes? Who is the “creator” of the image when the artist’s purpose is to capture the dynamic between artist and celebrity figure without the celebrity knowing that they are with an artist? What are the ethics of involving an entertainment figure in an art piece they do not know about and are therefore unable to agree to?

    • Yes, it has always struck me as incredibly ironic that Sherman should appropriate works of art and yet have so little interest in their history, etc. Of course I may be just a tad biased….I think the Raphael portrait and Caravaggio Bacchus provide interesting opportunities for issuing a feminist manifesto in the former case and guising in the latter—interesting to compare Cindy Sherman’s approach to masterpieces to that of Yasumasa Morimura, no?
      I love your musings about what Brown thinks now of his body of works that feature the Donald and him. The whole idea of celebrities as our saints, their photos/images as our relics—-would love to explore this more in class!

  14. I find it really interesting that Sherman does not know as much about the art historical value of her art (Woods-Marsden 36). One would think with the amount of discussion in this article that she would have to know the background behind the art she was recreating.

    It is interesting to see how Cindy Sherman has really impacted self-portrait photography. In the article, the writer explains 3 different artists. Lee strives to maker herself invisible. She attempts to become parts of different social groups and asks for them to help her to transform into them. Goicolea attempts to pass as a child. By using costuming, makeup, and wigs, he is able to pull of the creation of scenes. David Henry Brown Jr, explres identity as it pertains to celebrity and class. It is interesting how all of their art stems from our identity in private and the public. They all focus on different aspects in regards in how we identify and how it is created. They are all so different in the way in which the portraits are created and how they are discussed.

    • Do you agree with the author that all three of these artists were inspired by the work of Cindy Sherman? What connections do you see in their respective works to her different series of photos?

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