Quick Compare | Cindy Sherman, Martha Rosler, and Vogue Magazine

Cindy Sherman, Self-Portrait for French Vogue (2007)
Image courtesy: Artobserved 
A few weeks back in my art theory course, we were reading excerpts from Lea Vergine's 1974 groundbreaking book The Body as Language and discussing how female performance art has transitioned, changed, and sometimes stayed the same in connection to the shifting discourse around feminism and beauty. Interestingly, while researching material for this class, I ended up juxtaposing Martha Rosler's 1982 video art performance Martha Rosler Reads Vogue with Cindy Sherman's editorial work in French Vogue in 2007, where she assumed the persona of the "fashionista" that Rosler had offered critical commentary about 25 years earlier. After reflecting on the class discussion, it is quite amazing how well these two works stand in tension with one another. In Rosler's performance, that familiar deadpan voice (the one many of us recall from Semiotics of the Kitchen) poses the relentless question "What is Vogue?" while offering a close reading, and unpacking the cultural language offered, on page after page of an actual edition of the popular and iconic fashion magazine.

Here, Rosler anticipates the emerging post-feminist position that has been unwilling to fully interrogate (or at least come to some reasonable terms with) the resilient and seductive world of commodities targeting female consumers. One need only point to any episode of the popular "Real Housewives" franchise to see this phenomenon in action. Indeed, it is hard not to notice Rosler's fingers caressing each page of the magazine as she works through her monologue. This of course is at the core of the performance's powerful statement. With Sherman, we see Rosler's radical critique morph into a situational and fully postmodern intervention that dramatically positions the artist on the actual pages of Vogue. It is important to know that Sherman was invited and encouraged to produce her own performative fashion shoot using the very commodity items and media forms that had been a source of Rosler's critique. In the end, Sherman's difficult to categorize pictures (one wonders if the irony of the images is lost on Vogue readers-- Sherman does not really comment on this issue in her interview and discussion of the editorial below) further highlights the problematic and contradictory forces that inform present-day feminist politics.

Interestingly enough, and to add to the complexity surrounding these related performances, Rosler's video was recently screened as part of MoMA's contribution to the "Fashion Night Out" event that happens annually during New York Fashion Week. In November Rosler will have her much anticipated first solo exhibition at MoMA and is planning a large-scale version of an American style garage sale where she will display and sell second-hand goods to visitors. Rosler is also soliciting donations and, as the ad for the video screening promises without a hint of irony, "contributors will receive a 20% discount at the MoMA store!" I have no doubt that Rosler knows exactly what she is doing-- stay tuned.

Screen grab from Martha Rosler's upcoming solo exhibition at MoMA-- a live garage sale is planned.
Image courtesy: MoMA 
Further Reading:

Brunsdon, Charlotte.  “Feminism,Postfeminism, Martha, Martha, and Nigella”  Cinema Journal , Vol. 44, No. 2 (Winter, 2005), pp. 110-116.

Sprague-Jones, J. and Sprague, J. “The Standpoint ofArt/Criticism: Cindy Sherman as Feminist Artist?” Sociological Inquiry, 81: 2011, 404–430.