May 16, 2012
Let me first say that I appreciated being asked that question. I appreciated the interaction in and of itself, and also because, due to a confluence of highly-charged emotional events and situations, I was moved to write something again.
This is a big deal to me, because over the past five years, I've quit writing for good at least a dozen times. My answering the question about Cindy Sherman marks the end of a ten-week quitting streak. Once I've quit, it's (obviously) hard to start back up again at all, much less with any conviction, so I'm grateful for any jump start whatsoever. Whenever I quit, you see, there's an accompanying relief that's hard to resist. I feel a bright wash of intense job security and comfort knowing I will always have good health insurance, and a 401k match, and the only nagging guilt I'll feel is when there are weeds in the garden, or dishes in the sink. These chores take an hour to remedy, and then I'm back to watching Dr. Who and rearranging the plastic shopping bags in the pantry. Whenever I quit writing, I rejoice that I'll be able to afford to visit every museum in the world if I want to, and eat at every single one of the world's 50 best restaurants, and I can just shut off that thing that gathers all the details into a pool of anguish in my midsection and makes me cry in the car. In this dubious state of safety, if I drank beer, I could buy the really fancy kind of beer to cry into, if I wanted to.
Thus, I went to Manhattan without intending to write a word about it. Not a single word about seeing puppet sex in Avenue Q at the New World Stages (imagine an underground cinema multiplex, only it's 5 stages with live theater). Not a single word about staying in Hell's Kitchen, which seemingly has a 1:1 tourist-to-restaurant ratio, or roughly 400 restaurants per square foot. Not a word about the turkey, bacon, and swiss crepe and the French woman wielding the little wooden crepe Zamboni, or the solid offering of tapas from Solera, or the sublimely choreographed six course tasting menu at Daniel (see the link to the world's 50 best restaurants, above). (Click on the link to Daniel at your own peril - apparently, they are one of the world's top 50 restaurants, but they have not gotten the memo on how annoying opt-out music is on a website.)
At Daniel, your fancy-pants handbag gets its own little fancy-pants ottoman.
So I went to MOMA, and I did not intend to write about the apple spice cake with creme fraiche gelato. I did not intend to write about taking two pieces of candy from the Felix Gonzalez-Torres installation, one of which I intend to give to the co-worker who mentioned that very installation when expressing her confusion over the value of modern art. I intended to go to New York City and stuff my face and look at art, and go home, and go back to sleep. Except I bought the Cindy Sherman catalog, and I was asked what the appeal was, and I cried on the way home in the car.
"The fact that Sherman is in her photographs is immaterial, but the ongoing speculation about her identity gets to the very heart of her work and its resonance. The conflation of actor, artist, and subject and Sherman's simultaneous presence in and absence from her pictures has driven much of the literature on her, especially in relation to debates about authorship in postmodern art... it is Sherman's very anonymity that distinguishes her work. Rather than exploration of inner psychology, her pictures are about the projection of personas and stereotypes that are deep-seated in our shared cultural imagination. Even Sherman's public portraits are manufactured, such as the 1983 Art News cover (which carried the title Who Does Cindy Sherman Think She Is?), featuring a bewigged Sherman in her studio, enacting the role of the 'artist' and recalling figures such as Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, and Gilbert & George, whose personas loom large in their work."
"[Sherman's] invented characters speak to our current culture of YouTube fame, celebrity makeovers, reality shows, and the narcissism of social media. More than ever, identity is malleable and fluid, and Sherman's work confirms this, revealing and critiquing the artifice of identity and how photography is complicit in its making. Through a variety of characters and scenarios, she addresses the anxieties and status of the self with pictures that are frighteningly on point and direct in their appraisal of the current culture of the cultivated self."
How to explain what this does to me. If you're not into modern art, what you've just read is probably meaningless babble punctuated with jargon. I tease at work about business-speak, and "leveraging the synergies," and any set of phrases you repeat over and over again starts to sound like sporksporkspork if you try hard enough. Nonetheless, I was touched by what I saw and what I read. The artist, who in projecting herself everywhere -- vanishes. She vanishes into story. The art arrives when the artist is herself lost in those larger-than-life, grotesque prints splashed all over MOMA, and it's such the polar opposite effect of what I try to achieve by quitting and vanishing. When I vanish, I vanish without a ripple, much less leaving an end product that will be studied by generations of art students and ravished apasionados.
The Sherman retrospective reminded me that art, as it affects me most profoundly, is not safe. It is not something you buy to match the couch, or to cock your head and coo at. The art that moves me rips my heart out and shows it to me. It rides in the chariot beside me and reminds me of my mortality in terrifying whispers. What happens if you die with all this stuff still inside you? What makes you so different from everybody else, that you crawl away and stuff truffles in your ears so you don't have to (inevitably) make a fool of yourself trying to express that thing that seems so beautiful in your head. Why are your fears so special-snowflake that you get to quit? Mean little son of a bitch, that whisper.
I went to Manhattan not intending to write about anything, ever again. Then I saw a retrospective on an artist whose art is made when she is lost, and I read a book, and I answered a question on Facebook, and I cried halfway home, and here I am now, un-quitting again.