After finishing a series of photographs, Jed Martin feels like he never wants to take another shot. So does Cindy Sherman.
There are other similarities between the fictional photographer Jed Martin—whose pictures are described in Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and The Territory—and the real photographer Cindy Sherman, whose photographs are currently on display at MoMA.
Both are successful, their images selling for millions on the market, and both seem to have an exhaustive approach to art. Early in his career, Jed Martin started a photographic catalogue of all industrially produced things—a conceivable but impossible endeavor. Cindy Sherman appears to be making a catalogue of the human types contemporary American society produces—inconceivable because we are not types but people.
Unlike Jed Martin’s creator Michel Houellebecq, Sherman knows that. She uses the mechanical eye to capture humanity; Jed’s eye seems to be made not of tissue but of metal, a cell only capable of seeing stereotypes. He shows, she reveals. Reading him you snigger imperiously; seeing her you question each thread you are wearing and your very skin.
She is an artist and he is a critic. If properly handled, the two endeavors need not be mutually exclusive. Baudelaire did both very well—poems on the one hand, reviews on the other, or poems so beautifully biting that you can’t see the seams between the beauty and the bite.
“The question of beauty is secondary in painting,” writes Houellebecq in one of the many didactic disquisitions that interrupt his narration, “the great painters of the past were considered so when they had developed a vision of the world at once coherent and innovative.”
Houellebecq sees things clearly and he sketches with a sharp point, but his vision is dated; it is the same old adulterated Christianity rotted into romanticism that in France has passed for reality since Flaubert’s time. It is real enough to be funny but not real enough to be true. When applied to people it is deleterious, but it is effective when applied to art, ideas, and society.
“William Morris’s essential principle,” Houellebecq writes in another disquisition, “is that conception and execution must never be separated.”
As photographer and model, as well as make-up artist, director, casting agent, commissioner, sitter, and executioner, Cindy Sherman embodies that concept; and like William Morris she has found a way to make it commercially viable.
She’s cornered the market with her vertically integrated, high-margin production and distribution of portraits. The lady has a monopoly, so why isn’t anyone invoking the Sherman Antitrust Act? Because she succeeds in making us trust her. We can clearly see that though she attacks, she always shoots herself first.
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