Cindy Sherman, who has been creating art since the 1970’s, was an influential photographer in the post-modern world. She was both the model and artist, and in the process of creating her images created a new twist on the self-portrait. She made them conceptual. They didn’t represent her; they represented some story or some idea. Sherman did not consider her photographs self-portraits— she just happened to be both the photographer and the model. Her pictures were a chance to create some artistic vision; they weren’t a vessel to show the world the inner workings of herself. After some research, I discovered that some people have criticized her as narcissistic because of her methods and choice of model.
I found an interesting parallel with a man from a very different time period. Gustave Courbet, in the nineteenth century, once called himself “the most arrogant man in France.” In a Petru Chu article, Chu wrote about how Courbet used the self-portrait for “self invention,” and that helped him to rise from obscurity and to become one of the most talked about men in France— in just a 30-year period. He assumed certain “poses” in his portraits that would be noticed by important people like critics, and so he could become a public figure as more and more critics wrote about him in magazines and newspapers. Unlike Sherman, who posed as a completely different character, Courbet posed as some version of himself. Nonetheless, they were still carefully considered poses rather than spontaneous glimpses of his life. He only made certain aspects of his persona public and kept poses that did not fit that persona private.
Sherman used the self-portrait to create characters completely separate from herself, from a prostitute to a bored housewife to a victim of domestic abuse. Courbet used the self-portrait as a way to market himself, or at least how he wanted to public to see him. He created a caricature of himself as “the most arrogant man in France” to get attention and keep attention. Sherman was an independent female photographer at the start of the post-modern era and sought to tell a story- not to make a social statement about feminism. Courbet was a politically radical painter in the mid-1800’s who sought to make a social statement about class hierarchy.
These two artists couldn’t be more different… except for the criticisms they received for their self-portraits. Both of them used their own selves as models and were seen as vain or self-absorbed to their respective societies, at least to some critics. Based on this comparison, I see it fit to make a larger statement on creating self-portraits and being a prominent artist.
The act of creating a self-portrait is technically and literally self-centered. Whether that translates into something negative like arrogance isn’t necessarily the case— especially for an artist. Being an important artist means that you have some degree of self-importance. If you think your message or your work is good enough to make an impact on society, then you need to have confidence in your work, in yourself and in your message.
Artists like Sherman and Courbet made careers from self-portraits, and maybe that means they were self-involved people. For influential, progressive artists, though, is it that bad to be at least a little self-involved? Or is it necessary?