Dear CS, Warmest, CS: Some Epicurean Letters

On being generously invited by Ann McCoy to contribute a brief essay to the June issue of The Brooklyn Rail that she edited on the topic of the unconscious in contemporary art, I chose to write about how the Epicurean conception of the unconscious, via the work of the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius, can be seen to be at work in Cindy Sherman’s famous Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980). You can read the essay here.

Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #4, 1977

Now that it has been published, I can reveal that the reason I chose to use Cindy Sherman’s work as my case-study to discuss the Epicurean unconscious was to offer a covert tribute to an essay written for an earlier issue of The Brooklyn Rail by the poet and artist, Christopher Stackhouse (see here). Stackhouse’s essay is actually not an essay, but a letter addressed to Sherman in response to a negative review of a recent exhibition of her work by Jed Perl in the New Republic, “The Irredeemably Boring Egotism of Cindy Sherman” (March 14, 2012). The main focus of Stackhouse’s critique of Perl’s review is his simplistic dichotomy between form and content in Sherman’s work and how her use of herself as a subject-matter shows an ‘indifference to formal values’. Here is the heart of Stackhouse’s defense: 

“What Perl calls your “indifferences to formal values” aren’t indifferences at all—they are conscious, direct contaminations of the gaze. Your photographs carry as signature incessant disharmony. They generally project consistent formal decisions that serve the subject and content of the photos. Some of the images are unpleasant, and I would say many convey more than subtle misandry in negative relief. Perhaps that’s what he’s responding to in your overall body of work that gives his review such bite—you know, being a man can suck, too, he might as well have said. Further, when he states, “The only works of [yours]with a genuine poetic spark are the small, black-and-white Untitled Film Stills [you] did between 1977 and 1980, and this is because the controlled format gives [your] playacting some underlying structure…” I felt like he should have just come out and said, “Cindy Sherman in her 20s was kinda’ hot.”That would have been a more honest starting point from which to assess the trajectory of your production, in terms of formal means, variable content, and your work’s comprehensive engine.”

Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #4, 1977

In this brilliant paragraph Stackhouse manages to not only uncover the basis for Perl’s simplistic criticism of Sherman’s later work by pointing to what grounds his preference in her earlier work (because he finds the young Sherman ‘kinda’ hot’), he manages to do so by correcting Perl’s vague and loaded language of artistic judgment (‘genuine poetic spark’) with his own  informed and engaging analyses of the work, specifically how it offers ‘direct contaminations of the gaze’ as its ‘comprehensive engine’. Stackhouse later unpacks his interpretation when countering Perl’s description of Sherman as having become “a victim of the very clichés [you] embrace”. Stackhouse responds as follows:

If you are a “victim,” I suppose his acridity pitches him a sadist. Even if your artistic powers are waning, even if your work has some built-in limitations, Perl still misses this point (in a very male, egotistical, boring dick-in-hand kind of way): many of your pictures have served to give voice to facets of more than a few women’s complex view of themselves, reflected in/refracted through an excessively male-dominated society that tends to cast women into one dimensional characters, “either/or” rather than “both/and” and more. I feel like your work made fun of the fantastical projections of male insecurity that tend to want to control or mitigate the independence of women. You took an assertive position to a willful irrationality, an acceptance of the absurd that gave permission to anyone (man or woman or child) paying attention to be so, too.”

Cindy Sherman Untitled #205, 1989

But what does my own essay on the Epicurean unconscious and Cindy Sherman have to do with Stackhouse’s letter to Sherman in solidarity against Perl’s review? 

One connection is in the ‘formal’ choice made by Stackhouse to write Sherman a letter. His use of the epistolary genre has a very interesting history in Epicureanism, not only because Epicurus himself wrote letters to his followers (most famously the three letters preserved by Diogenes Laertius to Herodotus, Menoeceus and Pythocles), but also because the writing of fictional letters by Epicurus became a means to attack Epicureanism by other schools and also the medium of a counter-attack by later Epicurean initiates. 

Cindy Sherman Untitled #216, 1989

For example, we know that Diotimus the Stoic wrote as many as 50 letters, as if written by Epicurus himself, to slander him through their erotic content. Furthermore, Diotimus seems to have tailored the content of these pirate letters to the addressee, as those addressed to Leontion, the famous female Epicurean who may or may not have been a high-class hooker (hetaira), are about pimping and excessive banqueting. Yet there are cases of letters being written in Epicurus’ name that directly defend him against the simplistic critique of his school (e.g. for excessive pleasure) that use the addressee to make their point. The best example is the so-called Letter to Mother in the monumental inscription of the second-century Epicurean, Diogenes of Oenoanda. In this fragmentary letter, we find Epicurus encouraging his mother to find ataraxia (freedom from pain) by following the precepts of his school and avoiding the speeches of rhetoricians. This later Epicurean disciple has used the figure of the philosopher’s mother to directly transform the gendered parody of Epicurean erotic pleasure into the Garden. 

Can Stackhouse’s letter to Cindy Sherman be understood within this epistolary tradition of later Epicurean apologetic? If so, we can appreciate the contested nature of gendered criticism – whether in traditions of contemporary art or ancient philosophy. Furthermore, Stackhouse’s main objection to Perl is upheld by both traditions in the ways they each illustrate the inseparability of (aesthetic/literary) form from (ethical/political) content. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *