Æsthetic Identity

Consumption is identity within our capitalistic society. Food, clothing, entertainment… everything we would use to identify ourselves has become a transaction. Even “free content” involves a silent transaction (à la YouTube videos in exchange for advertiser attention).

To an upsetting degree, our identities are built on what we’re able to exchange. Whether this is having the financial backing to afford couture or the time to watch some obscure piece of fan media, our ability to articulate ourselves is limited by the kyriarchy and our positions of privilege/oppression within it.

The kyriarchy also limits how we may identify. Such as our gender. T-shirts, for example, are marketed as either ‘unisex’ or ‘women’s.’ This first separates women from ‘unisex,’ effectively, othering them and highlighting their state as ‘not default’ or even ‘extraneous.’ Further, the use of ‘unisex’ erases nonbinary people as ‘unisex’ is used to market to [cis]men. Many clothing companies further alienate diverse bodies (whether trans, fat, thin, disabled, or otherwise outside a perceived ‘normal.’)

Well, we could just not buy T-shirts. Punk’s DIY ethic developed as a response to consumerism. Return to the age of patchwork wearable art.

But… that still fails to separate completely from consumerism. Firstly, you need materials and skills to DIY a T-shirt (even thrifted garments would have gone through the destructive fashion industry). It has also become increasingly rare for people to have any experience with sewing.

Then, this æsthetic becomes a fashion trend. It is reproduced en masse. And largely defeats the point of trying to create your own identity through your clothes.

So, maybe, we adopt some kind of uniform. But, then, how do you articulate your identity to others if everyone looks the same? We’ve already identified how self-creation can be co-opted by capitalism. Well, what if we take ‘communicating identity’ more literally. Surely, what you say forms your identity.

Until you hit upon a short quippy phrase or iconography. A phrase that will find itself screen-printed on a T-shirt. Largely without your say.

So, given that capitalism is unlikely to spontaneously end, I’m left wondering how one builds an identity that isn’t built on consumption.

Perhaps, we need to reconsider the lens we’re viewing through.

Marcel Duchamp 's  Fountain  1917. Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz. (Public Domain)

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain 1917. Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz. (Public Domain)

What if we look through the art world rather than through capitalism? We have the ready-mades which use mass-produced and/or found objects largely unaltered. Their value as commodities differs from their value as art (reflected in both the commercial pricing and their placement in high-culture locals like museums). Ready-mades and pop art already demonstrate that uniqueness is no longer relevant to a work’s impact as an art piece.

Returning to our DIY punks, we can see that the reproduction/coöption of their æsthetic is independent to their own identities. A consumerist perspective argues they’ve had their cultural goods ‘stolen;’ their intellectual/emotional/artistic labor unpaid.

But, they haven’t been stolen from. They still own the physical product of their labor. The artistic value of their work exceeds that of the fast-fashion knockoff: the knockoff involves less creative thought, and. therefore, would have less cultural value.

Which leaves us with the question of «l'art pour l'art»: is one’s æsthetic just the outward appearance (an easily replicated material thing), or should we use the mental, emotional, and creative labor as the true æsthetic identity? I personally prefer the latter.

Reevaluating identity and æsthetic as a thought process allows it to disengage from consumerism, while allowing for the æsthetic identity to become fluid, a constantly changing collection of likes, interests, beliefs etc.

… Suppose I’ll have to start documenting my own æsthetic identity.

Creativity & Medium

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what the medium means for creating.

Or, more accurately, have been feeling paralyzed by it.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan* coined the phrase “the medium is the message” as part of his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man [note: casual racism]. He writes [emphasis, mine]:

The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the “content” of any medium is always another medium

Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the “content” of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that “the medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.

CC BY-SA 3.0  by Runner1616.

CC BY-SA 3.0 by Runner1616.

How we interact with the message depends a lot on the medium we’re presented. Film reels are a made up of many photographs. How do we interpret it differently from any other set of photographs? Why do we?

With a film, we’re viewing the photographs in a sequence. And it is this ordering of the images that produces the medium’s meaning (usually, a narrative). While there are other interpretations of this same narrative (à la the script), these won’t have the exact same meaning.

And this—this— has gotten me twisted up in knots. Because choosing a medium implicitly chooses its meaning. How it’ll be considered. What works it’ll be compared to. What tropes and æsthetics it can play into or against. The expectations of the audience. Even who the audience is.

It’s scary. Thinking that your choice of medium dictates so much about the interpretation of your work; examining every potential pitfall and outcome; considering how the production/release sequence impacts the reading. But…

Who the fuck cares‽

Like it or not, anything I produce is going to be misinterpreted. Appropriated. Reused. Ignored. Lost. So, I’ve decided to separate the meaning from the medium. That doesn’t mean I want to create vapid and shallow work. But, I can’t spend so much time on arting defensively.

That’s time I could be spending on making more art.


* McLuhan's work includes racist and sexist language.