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Friday, August 11, 2017

Art! Fame! Culture!

Two largely unrelated things have touched my consciousness recently, and per my usual methods I intend to place them next to one another to see what illumination might be cast one upon the other.

The first is the news that Cindy Sherman is on Instagram, together with the associated backlash. Apparently some elements of the media are cooing rather too loudly for some of the more precious critics out there, who are tweeting angry tweets.

The second item is that I am starting in on Edward Said's book, Orientalism. So far I have read the introduction, but I have a day at the beach today!

I must admit that I am finding Said tedious. He's spent an immense number of words to tell us that literature, politics, ideas, culture, and so on are all intermingled, interconnected, and cannot reasonably be understood separately. Further, almost all of what we think and believe is mediated through this mess. This strikes me as so obvious that one hardly need to even say it, let alone expend thousands of words of turgid prose. Still, it is just the sort of thing that galvanizes the undergraduate mind, and is also the exact opposite of much the 20th century's more abstruse academic thought (cf. Derrida). It is possible I find Said tedious because his ideas are so embedded as to be (now) obvious.


What about Sherman's Instagram? Well, to me it just looks like she's having fun. There is no denying that some people think she's doing something Important or Astonishing, and it's not at all obvious to me that she is, but see below. The refrain from the precious critics on Twitter might be if it wasn't Sherman, nobody would care about these pictures which is probably true.

This is to quite miss the point, which is that Sherman did make these things. Her fame is part of the rich cultural stew in which all works of art live. You cannot discard her fame, any more than you can discard a caption or the left half of the frame.

George Bush's paintings would be utterly uninteresting if he were not a former president, but to try to push them aside as uninteresting is wrongheaded. I'm not advocating hanging these things in the MOMA but his fame, his former role, do lend the pictures some interest. If nothing else, they gain a little historical weight, they speak, or might speak, to the nature of the man who was president.

How much more weight do Sherman's selfies on Instagram have?! Sherman is, after all, widely recognized as the JS Bach of the selfie. He didn't invent the fugue, she didn't invent the self portrait, but both mightily thrust their forms forward and up. The fact the Sherman is making these pictures, now, is inherently interesting. Who cares if they're "good" or "new" or "cutting edge"? That's irrelevant, or at best secondary.

If Bach in his dotage had written a series of 24 suites for kazoo, we might legitimately re-examine the kazoo, we might legitimately ask what on earth did the old bastard see in the kazoo here at the end?

Maybe nothing. Maybe Sherman is just playing around and there's nothing really to be read here. Maybe it just means that Sherman, the selfie queen, thinks that Instagram is jolly good fun. That right there is worth noting, though.

This is not to say that what famous people do is automatically "good". It is often important, influential, in a sense. If we wish to understand our world, we need to be attentive to the famous, however idiotic they may seem, for they do shape our world. It's all interconnected, and it is through all of this that we see, we grasp, our world. Sherman's presence on Instagram has changed that medium, it has changed photography, it has changed Art. Subtly to be sure, perhaps infinitesimally. But the change, the impact, is there.

Warhol was a sharp fellow.

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