Art & Selfhood Posted on March 28th
Unlike people in most professions, a person who makes art must continually grapple with the title that comes with what they do. A teacher, cabinetmaker, or businessman can identify his or herself by profession without any real philosophical complications. Even if, say, a cabinetmaker does occasionally struggle with the meaning of what they do and why they do it, that struggle is not made manifest every time they must refer to themselves as a cabinetmaker.
For an artist, however, identifying oneself as an artist is full of complications, both personal and public.The public end of it is pretty well known. Artists (and poets and writers) who refer to themselves as such have to deal with various public attitudes, ranging from condescending to needlessly reverent. For every person who skeptically asks how you’ll make a living, there’s someone else who is full of envy and admiration for what they imagine your life must be. Both responses can be uncomfortable, but the public or familial perception of an artist isn’t nearly as interesting as how an artist views his or herself.
Being an artist, almost above all else, requires attention to the “self.” I do not mean simply that an artist needs to be introspective, which is not always true, but that an artist must forever struggle with what it means to be a “self” out in the world. The role of the artist itself already makes this hard. On one hand, an artist needs to have a strong sense of self–an ego–to even have the confidence to make art or believe they have something worth saying. In other words, there needs to be a strong self to supply the “vision.“ On the other, an artist must renounce the self enough to be able to engage with some more universal strand of existence to avoid making work that is merely personal. And since observation is where all good art begins, an artist with too much self will limit what they can see in the world. Too strong a worldview interferes with perception, because it makes every observation match up with a preexisting view. But without any personal vision, the observer risks creating a mere record.
To frame this problem in a different way, the artist needs to simultaneously see themselves as a gifted individual with the ability to create, and as a humble conduit to a higher (universal, sublime, etc) truth. Obviously, these two conceptions of the self are in conflict. What is the role of an artist? A selfless chronicler of the beauty in the world or a bold individual who can find beauty in the banal and barren?
In numerous works, Hawthorne brings up yet another irresolvable conflict in the artist’s sense of self. Hawthorne seems to imply that an artist, to create art, must be more attentive, engaged, and connected to world than an average person. In essence, an artist must bear heightened witness to what they see. Yet this very attentiveness–a tight focus with art-making as its final goal–actually distances the artist from the very world they wish to engage. The fanatic attention to detail, the deep appreciation of quirks and foibles, the worship of the particular–none of this has much to do with the real business of living. If life is a rushing stream, the aesthetic and the beautiful are the rocky outcroppings that pull one out of its flow. So an artist, in their desperation to fully see and understand the world, becomes less a part of it in the very intensity of their attention. Hawthorne saw this paradox in its full irony and tragedy.
There is indeed a great deal of absurdity in the artist always seeing lines and forms rather than streetscapes, the poet taking line breaks rather than breaths, the actor tuned to the delivery over the thing said. Hawthorne makes liberal mockery of obliviousness of the artist–in all their talk of form, alliteration, and tone, they miss what’s really there. Yet at the same time, Hawthorne recognizes that the artist must step back to be an artist–like a impressionist painting, the world cannot be fully recognized close-up. The universal and the infinite must factor into their viewing. But by stepping out of the personal and temporal, the artist necessarily becomes “out of touch” with the moment in which he is living There is something tragic in the idea that an artist who loves life enough to document and honor it with song or image must also, in some ways, renounce it in order to pay full homage. The best worshippers, at least in the world of art, are those standing back from their god.
How can an artist reconcile the ego and humility it takes to be an artist? The engagement and distance? For many artists, the never-ending ricochet between the poles of identity is too much. They simply chose to be humble or filled with ego, to resign themselves to the clarity of distance or the narrowness of engagement. We’ve all know obsessively autobiographical artists who let the ego and the moment rule and the opposite–artists who act as if they have no selves and see themselves as a mere tool, as if rather than using a medium to create art, art is using the artist as its medium. There are also enough examples of writers and artists who hold themselves outside of life to nurture their imaginations, and those that insist that they are no different than anyone else. But artists like Hawthorne never decide. In the world of self-help books and fanaticism about hammering out just “who we are,” the artist must resist the temptation to settle into any certainty about the self. Art is born of the paradox the artist must live.
P.P.S. Hawthorne here. Did McFawn need to invoke my name to make these points about the artist’s self? For a writer discussing the “self,” McFawn seems to rely pretty heavily on my name and her conjecture about my ideas. Perhaps McFawn needs to write about the questionable selfhood of writers who presume too great an affinity with their influences.Trackback URL