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.
Houellebecq usually appears in his books through his detached and disillusioned heroes. In The Map and The Territory he is there in person—Michel Houellebecq, author—reading Tocqueville in Ireland before being brutally murdered in a France that has become a theme-park version of itself.
As his own character, Houellebecq focuses on his flaws. As her own model, Sherman treats her beauty as an accessory without making the beginner’s mistake of falling into an ugliness as easy as prettiness can be. Her constant self-portraits are less self-indulgent than his self-flagellation; where she manages to take pictures without making clichés, he seems incapable of producing anything else.
A scene with Jed looking at faded papers concludes with “things and beings have a life span,” and a Christmas dinner between Jed and his father ends on “human relations, after all, are a very small thing.”
In The Map and The Territory, we are given such stock figures as the lonely artist driven by an imperative above himself, the ambitious but passionate Russian, and the bitter, mal baisé PR woman.
“What he is really interested in, is not sex, but the organization of production,” says Houellebecq of the 19th-century French philosopher Charles Fourier. Replacing “sex” with “human relations,” we can say the same of Houellebecq.
“Yes, it’s true,” his eponymous fictional character almost admits, “even if my real subject had been the industrial process, without characters I couldn’t do anything.”
So he pulls a few types out of a sociology handbook as an ambitious and misguided misanthrope picks people like pebbles to strew along his path. He cobbles together a story as a package.
“I think I’ve more or less finished with the world as narration,” says the fictional Michel Houellebecq, “the world of novels and films, the world of music as well. I’m now only interested in the world as juxtaposition—that of poetry and painting.”
Unlike Houellebecq, Sherman has an endless supply of characters, since she is creating them stroke by stroke rather than picking them ready-made off the rack; and since she didn’t feel compelled to go through the motions of a story, she made stills that she shows untitled.
Jed Martin titled his first solo show The map is more important than the territory. If life is the territory, then the novel is its map. Houellebecq’s books are novels just like a dot on a map is Paris.
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