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  • Dressing Up and Other Games of Make-believe: The Function of Play in the Art of Cindy Sherman*
  • Danielle Knafo

Be what you would seem to be—or, if you’d like it put more simply—Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

New York-based Cindy Sherman ranks among today’s most successful contemporary artists. Sherman’s oeuvre—consisting primarily of photographs of herself in a variety of guises and disguises—has provoked questions of alienation, female identity, and transformation in a postmodern age. Some art historians have labeled her narcissistic due to her self-consciousness and overemphasis on self-portraiture (Larson 1987; Danto 1991, 8). Contrarily, postmodernists have believed her work to be self-abnegating for they insist it is fiction, about representation and, therefore, about nobody in particular (Krauss 1993). Feminists have perceived her art in terms of the deindividualization of women in society and claimed that in a patriarchal culture, woman is nothing more than “image” (Mulvey 1991). It is not my intention to dispute any of the above-mentioned views; I think all three have offered valuable insights into Sherman’s work. As a psychoanalyst who writes about art, I would like to consider Sherman’s work from yet another perspective—the perspective of play. In this paper, I hope to demonstrate that Sherman’s art represents an arena, much like Winnicott’s potential space, a location existing between mother and child, external and internal reality, in which [End Page 139] conditions are created for the growth of authentic agency through play.

Sherman dresses up and masquerades as others; she plays peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek games, games of loss and retrieval, and she plays with dolls. Erik Erikson (1950) claims that “child’s play begins with and centres on his [her] body” (213). Sherman’s art depicts a theater in which she manipulates her favorite toy—her own body—to play out an infinite number of roles. She literally makes a spectacle of herself as she becomes innocent girl, seductress, man, woman, hermaphrodite, old, young, rich, poor, monster, beast, etc. In her human comedy (and more often tragedy), she sets the stage on which her infantile and adult selves, as well as figures she has loved and hated in the past, become acquainted and reacquainted, and in which various ambivalences and contradictions come together in an attempt to assume a more cohesive identity. Like Scheherezade, Sherman continuously takes life and death into her hands as she weaves story after story in a lively panorama of psychic scenarios. She “plays” with images appropriated from pop culture (film, television, advertising) and history (art masterpieces), gender stereotypes, myths, fairy tales, dreams, and nightmares. Everything is permitted; and nothing is off limits. Yet, despite—or because of—her emphasis on illusion and make-believe, Sherman confronts powerful emotional realities. Her art can be viewed as progressively peeling off layers in order to arrive at deeper truths, more frightening wishes, and archaic anxieties. Working through ambiguities in her “artistic play,” Sherman searches out meanings and answers to the following basic questions: Who am I? What should I look like? What is my role? What am I made of? What is my relation to the past? and How do I relate to others?

In order to facilitate an understanding of Cindy Sherman’s art, I have divided her work into five phases, each of which progressively illustrates a deepening of her use of play in the service of the development of female identity and the differentiation between fantasy and reality, and self and object. I will show how Sherman first plays with the constancy of identity in the face of masquerading roles. Emphasis on external appearance [End Page 140] gradually shifts to representation of the contents of her inner world. In so doing, Sherman intensifies her experience of self and identity. From the internal, Sherman eventually moves to a relational perspective. Her self-perception broadens further as she begins to define herself...

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pp. 139-164
Launched on MUSE
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