Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Artist's Multiple Identities

Oftentimes, the artist is described as being manic, we crave solitude to spend time with our work, yet we need to be immersed in life and people in order to experience them and relate them into our art. These two "Identities," of The Introverted Individualist and The Connected Humanist seems very much at odds with each other. And surprisingly, besides the two mentioned, there are more identity aspects that reside in the artist; we often battle between two sides of many coins: we have visions of Humility and Grandeur: of responsibility to be the creative "witness or recorder" in our society while simultaneously we crave to be recognized for that role. Van Gogh often expressed the similar duality that he is a Servant, a creative channel for society/god and at the same time, he has feelings of grandeur as the Savior, the artist who could bring about change in society through his art.

As an artist, you may have realized or come across some of these identities already, either in yourself or other artists:

The Activist - the artist intwined with politics and culture
The Entertainer - the artist who's goal is to amuse
The Warrior - "Art is a Battle" - Edgar Degas
The Careerist/ Productionist - "You tell me what to create, and I'll make it."
The Outsider - the artist who sees himself as not belonging to his society or human race
The Witness - I must record the society of today through my art
The Meditator - "art is in the mind, when it is on paper, it is no longer the purity of what I have imagined"
The Trickster - People buy bad art all the time. I'll create something that I don't care for and charge a ridiculous price and laugh at the stupidity of people for buying into my bandwagon.

. . . These are just a few of the artist identities and they are all very complex.

Why is it even important to know what your identity(ies) are as an artist? Often we do things that seem contradictory, it is because all these artist identities are at interplay with each other. Because these identities often define our roles as artists, it unfortunately often brands us early on and limits our choices. And external events only makes the identity crisis of the artist more complex.

Take an actor who is trained in all aspects of acting, but her/his first handsomely paid gig was in stand-up comedy. S(he) appears in more stand-ups and gets picked up by film producers to do a similar role, in a comedic film. It is not hard for this actor to conclude, I am a comedian, an Entertainer, I make people laugh and society will pay me for it. Were I to do drama, they may not take me seriously. It may even have the opposite effect and people will laugh at me. . .

Now this artist identifies her/himself as the Entertainer, with the expected role that as soon as s(he) is in front of the camera, it is to make people laugh. Although this identity can potentially provide the artist many future paid opportunities for more entertainer roles, the artist becomes cornered and limited. And worse, s(he) limits her/himself by choosing and only sticking to this one identity.

The "opposite" identity can also be true. Take the "Intellectual/ The Shaman/ or Avant-Garde Artist" who is often concern with meaning-making, their art has to be deep. Sometimes, so deep that no one else can dive that far down. This artist believes s(he) must create never before seen work, work that is deep, thoughtful, and new/unfamiliar. This artist refuses to do "commercial" work or "accessible" work for the public. S(he) will not allow herself to "play" to create works for "gist" or simple entertainment. The artist perhaps does not receive the feedback, recognition, or understanding that s(he) deserves and expects. The public is alienated by this artist's work. And the artist becomes alienated to themselves.

Take another example, the Hobbyist - this artist believes that they are creating art for a hobby. While in some aspects this is a positive to not always take on activities as a life-long career, the negative of this identity could be that this artist will never take their art to the "next level" or take it seriously. The act of creating or showing their art in public becomes excused or downplayed by their identity, "it is just a hobby."

To be a "successful artist" you will need to understand and honor all the different aspects of your artist identities; you will need to get to know which one is your primary role, or whether you juggle several, and understand that each identity has its own shadow side. There are positive and negative aspects of each identity and you may also find yourself in simultaneous conflict and at odds with yourself. You will need to learn how to make decisions NOT based solely on what your "identity" is at the time, but ask yourself questions:

whether you are moving closer to yourself or society?
whether the act of creating in this way connects you or disconnects you to what you believe is your purpose as an artist.?
if I were a different or opposite identity than what I'm most comfortable with right now, would I make the same decisions? (For example, if I were a humanist and not an entertainer) would I come to the same conclusions?

Remember, that identity is always flexible. You don't always have to choose. But there is always a danger in not knowing who you are, either. You can start new at any time. You are not bound by your past decisions or how you saw yourself then. We are continually recreating ourselves every day. If you do not change your behaviors, you will get the same results as you did yesterday. So nurture and manifest the identity(ies) that best serves what you want out of life.

Get to know the different multitude of identities that accompanies in being an artist, understand it, debate it, accept that this is part of the process as an artist and honor it. Balance and introspection is the key.