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.