Contemporary Female Artists Essay Sample

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Living in contemporary world, there are some issues that we have in the daily life such as postmodernism, post structuralism, feminism or post colonialism. Today, there are various contemporary artists who expose these contemporary issues. What is mostly concerned in contemporary artist is “postmodernity”. The term “post-modernity” can be identified in many different ways that refers to the cultural style of movement in art, architecture, and literature (The New Crown Dictionary). According to Art History Professor Douglas Crimp, in his book, The Reading of the Photographic Activity of Postmodernism, “Postmodernism is about art’s dispersal, its plurality” (91). Crimp was referring to what he called “plurality of copies” occurring through overuse of identical or familiar images displayed in popular media such as TV, magazines, or advertisements.

These identical or familiar images used in a mass society are called “simulacra”, identified as “an image or representation of something or someone that is made to looks like something or someone else” used often in postmodern condition. “Pure simulacra” refer to “authentic copies without the original” (Bronfen 15-21). For example, these images below in figure 1 seem familiar to each other and seem to represent a traditionally classy look; they establish pure simulacra in images. It is because these women appear in these photographs are not imitating anyone; they are influenced by overuse of simulacra images through media. Crimp suggests in post-modern condition that nothing is authentic anymore. Especially those who grew up in a mass society of contemporary culture have been strongly influenced; their self-image a reflection of the images and identities created by media.

Figure. 14. Natalie Portman BAZAR/ 2006

4. Natalie Portman BAZAR/ 2006

3. Horst P. Horst
American VOGUE / Sept 15, 1949

3. Horst P. Horst
American VOGUE / Sept 15, 1949

2. Shotaro Akiyama /1960
2. Shotaro Akiyama /1960
1. Hunt’s Tomato Catsup by William Helburn/ 1955
1. Hunt’s Tomato Catsup by William Helburn/ 1955

Cindy Sherman, “one of the most widely discussed contemporary American artists (Bronfen13)”, grew up in postmodern condition have strongly influenced by mass media. Throughout her artwork, Sherman expresses the mechanism of media that creates and influences the idealized and perfection of the women. Sherman’s work questions feminism and identity as she questions “What am I? (qtd in Bronfen 13)” to herself. Lorna Simpson is another contemporary artist who has lived in the postmodern condition as well. She was the first African-American woman to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale and to have a solo exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (Barrett, p.180). Simpson also faces similar issues with Sherman, the gender ideal, identity, and stereotypes. However, Simpson’s work focuses mainly on African American models, which gives main approach to racism and sexism in the contemporary world for colored women. In this essay, I am going to compare and contrast these two contemporary female artists, Sherman and Simpson, mostly giving a focus on racism.

By explaining postmodernity, I would like to examine the common issues that contemporary women have beyond their race differences through their art works. Also I would like to examine the difference of two artists by explaining “the male gaze” and the case of the “double consciousness” which will lead to the racism now in the contemporary world. Cindy Sherman’s photography from Untitled Still Films represents pure simulacra of the feminine ideal. In post-modern condition, mass society uses simulacra to establish the accepted image of femininity through films and images of celebrities. Influence of media and advertising image of producing homogeneous images of the ideal feminine look extended women’s identity. According to French Philosopher Michel Foucault, the “docile bodies of the modern state” are “citizens who participate in the ideologies of the society through cooperation and a desire to fit in and conform” (qtd, in Sturken and Cartwright 110-111). Norms of beauty and aesthetic presented by modern society establish the desired and expected look for women (Sturken and Cartwright 111). To feel secure, women are tending to imitate the ideal image to fit into the norms of expected femininity look to avoid looking abnormal. Cindy Sherman has played many roles in different stereotypes of women from the 1950-60’s, in which her represented subjects and images are identical to the spectators.

She plays these characters through the use of fashion to become the idealized stereotyped women. These perfected ideal images, which are simulacra to the spectators, have the power to affect their self-image and also make feel insecure about their self-identity. Women have desire to fit into the ideal image (Sturken and Cartwright 110-111). However, at the same time they feel pressure to fit in to the ideal image; this pressure comes from the limitation or restriction in created identities. In the postmodern condition, media have offered many models of identity through exposure to lifestyles of celebrities. Through film or life of celebrities, many experiences and identities are represented to spectator.

Because of the overuse of simulacra images of perfection, creating one’ self-image and identity have changed to imitating the ideal outlook and accepting experiences of others; this indicates to the fact of having limitation in experiences and identities. In post-modern condition, people tend to find the best identity for themselves through models from popular media instead of creating own original identity. From the archives of CINDY SHERMAN, edited version in Japanese, Sherman reasoned why she have quite taking Untitled Still Films series pictures through the interview with Noriko Fuku, an independent curator, Sherman said “I quit taking these still film pictures, because I ran out of ideas”(qtd. in McClintoc 2). Just like any other women, she is also facing the reality of living in the post-modernity, that creating an identity of her owns cannot be original; it become pure simulacra of what media exposes. Figure 2. Stereo Styles by Lorna Simpson/ 1988

Figure 2. Stereo Styles by Lorna Simpson/ 1988

Lorna Simpson also exposes these created identities, stereotypes, of women. As Sherman portrayed stereotypes of women through fashion, Simpson used hairstyle to create the stereotypes. One of her artwork from Project series, Stereo Styles, Figure 2, has 10 photographs of African American women with no differences except their hairstyles. There is a text with her artwork, which says “Darling, Sensible, Severe, Long&Silky, Boyish, Ageless, Silly, Magnetic, Country Fresh, Sweet.” Simpson chose to use hairstyle to represent “African American Visual Culture” (qtd. Barrett p.180) and limitation of stereotypes in postmodernity as Sherman faced. Some of them are unique, yet most of hairstyles are these simulacra image of African American women.

Viewer should be able to match up the expression of the word and the photograph. An educator from the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Jillian Hernandez said, “It’s this idea of what hair says about you”(Sheets 2005). Simpson’s work seems to criticize these words that labels one’s expected identity by their physical looks. As Sherman felt the pressure of fitting into the limited and created identity, Simpson exposes the pressure of expectation from the others of having the ideal stereotyped identity with their physical appearances such as hairstyle. Figure 3. Cindy Sherman Untitled Still Films #6 1954

Figure 3. Cindy Sherman Untitled Still Films #6 1954

These two artists, Sherman and Simpson, criticize the same problem for the modern women. Stereotypes are the “copies without the original”, that is what postmodern women are forced to become. However, postmodernity isn’t the only criticize they have in common. They both use a woman as the model to deal with the feminist issues. According to John Berger, British Marxist critic, moat of woman has this “male gaze” that always have the feel of being looking at. He argues that many of nude paintings of Western art of women have been the enjoyment for the males. Women have been the subjects as passive and available and their body was the sexual desire (Barrett 163). Feminist film theorist, Laura Mulvey said how “visual presentation and female characters are constructed to satisfy voyeuristic desires of male viewers, which in turn are based on fear of women and men’s subconscious need to exert power over them (qtd Mulvey 162)”. Having this gaze of women as the object of enjoyment empowers the male.

Cindy Sherman’s artwork, Figure 3, express the “the male gaze” by posing like a pin-up girl who looks desiring. On the other hand, Lorna Simpson avoids using this sexuality, femininity of women in her art works. As Beryl Wright, the curator of the exhibition, explains that “the classic ‘gaze of pleasure’ is a psychical obsession that structures representation of the female body as an object of desire, but Wright observes that the concept has been used primarily to address ‘the gaze’ upon the white body.(qtd Barrett 182)” Those “the gaze” seems to apply mostly on white female body not often to the other race, colored body of women. Wright also mentions that “gaze of obliteration that erases physical presence and denies interiority (qtd Barrett 182)”.

As Mulvery mentioned that sexual desire of “the male gaze” applies to mostly to white women’s body, this consequence might lead to the fact of the continuing discrimination of African American women. Mireille Miller-Young, an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, explored “the history of black pornography, had interviews with more than 60 sex workers, she acknowledged fears that blacks in porn were acting out their own exploitation and ‘making it worse for the rest of us’ she says. And she pointed out that black women have fought discrimination in the porn industry, just as in other labor markets.” (qtd Patton 7) Therefore, Simpson avoided the use of sexuality side of the women or the white women as the model. Therefore, her message through the artwork is not just about postmodern and feminism, or even not so focused on discrimination of African American women. Her artworks express this inner complexed feeling and consciousness of African American women living in the contemporary society.

Figure 4. Guarded Conditions by Lorna Simpson 1989
“SEX ATTACKS / SKIN ATTACKS” these two texts are used repeatedly in Guarded Conditions (Figure 4). In her photography, there are six photos of this African American woman posing in the same way, holding their hands behind, wearing a cotton white dress, facing behind. Simpson says “the conditions of many black women as double targets of racism and sexism (qtd Barrett 182)”. As I have mentioned earlier, women has this view of “the male gaze”, having two consciousness; own view and men’s point of view, can also apply to orientalism issues called “double consciousness”. W. E. B. Du Bois, an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, introduced the term “double consciousness” into the study of African American psychology. “Double consciousness” comes from African Americans viewing themselves, individually and as a group, through the eyes of the society they live in. Du Bois says it is “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 299).

As an African American woman, she is living with this consciousness of “how I will be looked at from the others” from men and also have the consciousness of the different view from Western/European people. Therefore, Lorna Simpson’s work exposes postmodern African American women culture of having both feminism and racism. By looking through contemporary feminism artist like Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, and Laurel Nakadate through the research also made me realize that most of feminists do not consist anything to do with racism. Most of their photographs tend to unconsciously ignore and exclude the colored women, the other, from their mind. Almost like, from their point of view, when they think of the word “women”, they only think about they are all white. However, Lorna Simpson mentions, “I intentionally sought to avoid presenting a “them and us” situation, them being a white audience. It is also a self-description, because these stereotypes cross the boundaries of race and gender. It is not necessarily pointing a finger at any individual’s ideology, but at the language of stereotypes. Stereotypes don’t reveal anything about a women or an experience anyway.

So I am suggesting that clichés and assumption should be discarded.” (qtd Barrett 186) Therefore, before she is an African American, her identity as a woman comes first in her mind. There are issues about women as the body, idealized image which shared by every race, culture, tradition of women who lives in these contemporary world. Both Cindy Sherman and Lorna Simpson were born and raised in the United States, living in the postmodern world. Through the artwork, they express the problems of such as gender, stereotypes, and racism, which seems to be continued, unchanged throughout the histories. Even though the women and the other, non-white people, seem to have empowerment in social class or politically; becoming more equally like South Korea having the first president as a woman or Obama, first non-white president, rule the United State. Yet, this “double consciousness” or “the male gaze” of being secure, seem to be in one’s nature of the mind. This consciousness is also born through the influence of people, environment, and mass media.

Work Cited

Barrett, Terry. Why Is That Art?: Aesthetics and Criticism of Contemporary Art. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. Bronfen, Elisabeth. “The Other Self of the Imagination: Cindy Sherman’s Hysterical Performance.” Photographic Work: 1975-1995. By Cindy Sherman, Zdenek Felix, Martin Crane, Diana. Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000. Print. Crimp, Douglas. “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism.” 15.October (1980): 91-101. JSTOR. Web. 01 July 2010. <>. Du Bois, W. E. B. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” Hayes, Floyd W. A Turbulent Voyage. San Diego: Collegiate Press, 2000. 298-302. McClintoc, Martha. CINDY SHERMAN. Asahi Shinbun, 1996. Print. Patton, Stacey. “Who’s Afraid Of Black Sexuality?.” Chronicle Of Higher Education 59.15 (2012): 3. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Dec. 2012. SHEETS, HILARIE M. Using Art to Build Pride. New York Times, 1 June 2005. Web. Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: an Introduction to Visual Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

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