Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

What is Identity?

Posted in art, awareness by Jason Gray on December 20, 2009

The subject of personal identity in human beings has never before been raised on such a universal level as it is in today’s world.  “Identity” is a person’s brand; it is the singular tool, which expresses both promotion and self-reflection.  In sheer availability, the scope of that expression is larger and further reaching then ever.  With internet sites like Myspace, Facebook, Linked-In, WordPress, etcetera, we are encouraged to indulge in self-obsession, and led to believe that, the more we do it, the closer we get to the truths of our being.  This personal pursuit, however, is also a public spectacle, and so those who perform it most interestingly are generally the ones rewarded with some form of closer study on a massive scale; the results can be positive or negative.  In other words, those who understand best how to correlate the technology available with the attention they receive, or those who are most unabashed in their public performances, are the ones most likely to move their “brand of identity” onto broader platforms of promotion.  However, truly achieving the self-reflective aspect of one’s very publicized identity can be a trickier struggle, and one that seldom few, if any, might actually achieve.  This is because the public and the private nature of the effort are inherently dichotomous, and therefore, the concept of self-reflection and personal betterment as advertised in the collective unconscious about these sites is essentially ephemeral (or strictly mis-advertisement).  Nonetheless, we want to connect and we want people to know that we are here, and those goals are easier to achieve in the public spotlight than true self-awareness, so the system is perpetuated.  In this context then, what is human identity?  An easy answer: public behavior.

In America, in the middle part of last century, artists, like actors and politicians before them, began to better comprehend how their identities were intertwined with the successfulness of the activities that they happened to pursue.  How they were perceived meant how their work was perceived.  This development came about as technological improvements in mass-media enabled the projection of new types of individuals into the popular spotlight.  The simplification of 35mm photography, especially color, meant that artists and their work could be reproduced quickly and cost-effectively in the periodicals; meanwhile, television democratized media and helped to intensify pressure on one’s public presentation.  All of this meant that larger groups of people had better access to the subjects they were interested in, and artists learned quickly how to exploit it.  First, came Jackson Pollock, who personified a Tennessee Williams version of his reality, and appealed to the spirit of what “American” meant.  Second, came Andy Warhol, who gave an image to the artist as icon, and by then, the pattern was set.

Cultivating an “identity” as a means of promoting what one does or makes is essentially a side-affect of a capitalized market, wherein success is measured by standing out.  However, when we base what we know about ourselves only upon what we want others to see, like the afore-mentioned internet sites enable us to do, then we increasingly risk losing what makes us people in the first place.  We become products instead.  It is important to understand how to live without the public scrutiny, which is why you’ll never see me Twittering away about my Jarmursch-ian  journey through the minutiae of my days.  After all, the goal of all of this media (or at least how it is mass-appealed) is to expand your experiences, and the only way to do that is to know how much and what parts of yourself you want to sell, and, most importantly, when to unplug.  In terms of the self-reflection, that has to come on your own time.

3 Responses

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  1. jana said, on December 20, 2009 at 11:37 am

    very interesting. I appreciate human identity as public behavior. What’s even better is how our public behavior is often directly polarized by our interior behavior, or our behavior around family and others whose own private identities we know and tolerate. We’re certainly not only sensationalizing ourselves (generally speaking) on these all about me sites, we’re also loosing what’s real, or the definition of real has changed so rapidly, as a political consciousness we’re still trying to come to terms with it. Soon this won’t even be considered an anomaly or considered at all for that matter.

  2. jasongrayfineartist said, on December 27, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Jana, thank you for the comment! You present an interesting notion when you say that eventually our current understanding of what is “real” will become replaced by another. This has certainly happened to varying degree throughout mankind’s history, but when the virtual replaces the actual in terms of how we define “real” then it is time for me personally to check out…

    P.S. You have some great work on your site!

  3. […] What is Identity? […]

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