The risk of becoming oneself

Image: Roman cavalry sports helmet found in 1912 near Nijmegen, collection Museum Het Valkhof

This is my contribution to Inventing Futures, a book celebrating the 10th anniversary of the ArtEZ Master of Choreography.

Since the Romantic period, the artist has been an explorer of the inner world of the individual, where he eventually hopes to find his obscured soul. The artist wrests him/ herself away from social, cultural and economic conventions, and breaks through the boundaries of reason and morality – restlessly searching for him/ her individual source or origin. In this way, modern art resembles the maps, drawings and reports of the great voyages of discovery.

In his lecture The Malaise of Modernity (1991) philosopher Charles Taylor points out that this idea of independent personal development is seriously flawed, as we only define the framework of our identity in dialogue with others. The ideal of individual authenticity can only occur as a social project. Anyone who ignores this fact, according to Taylor, is inevitably heading toward a personal crisis. And certainly, when we look at recent art history, it seems to consist of a series of individual crises, from Joseph Beuys to Yves Saint Laurent, and from Sylvia Plath to Britney Spears.

From this perspective, art plays a different role in society than usually thought. Rather than presenting us merely with the elusive choice of becoming oneself, it points out the unacceptable risks involved. As a consequence, the artist legitimises the conventions and boundaries against which he/ she is fighting. What’s more: just as the church cultivates the fear of sin, healthcare cultivates the fear of disease, education cultivates the fear of failure and politics cultivates the fear of chaos, modern art cultivates the fear of the individual.

I am reminded of the artists of Pussy Riot, who, by sampling the history of Dada, Fluxus and Punk in Putinistic Russia, have to defend themselves against this mechanism. Instead of triggering a nationwide liberation movement, they strengthen the emotions that support middle class conservatism. Moreover, they do not realise that a similar fear of the individual is also spreading across the ‘free West’, like a contagious disease.

I am also reminded of the Roman face-mask in De Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen. It gives the impression of being a portrait, the stylised identity of a horseman from the first century. How does his desire to be recognised in battle without exposing himself relate to the fear of being oneself? I tend to see the silver-plated face-mask as a symbol of a post-Romantic art practice, where the artist hides behind a carefully managed brand identity and, as a consequence, superficiality dominates profoundness.

The impact of this art practice is already overwhelming, as thousands of visitors to the Damien Hirst exhibition in the Tate Modern witnessed earlier this year. But at the same time Gillian Wearing demonstrated in Whitechapel Gallery that art could also take an alternative direction. In her films and photographs, including the series Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say, she transforms art into a space for dialogue between the artist and the public. Wearing keeps the hope alive that we might conquer the fear of ourselves and breathe new, social life into the elementary ideal of authenticity. To rephrase the words of Hamlet (Act 3 scene 1): Gillian, or Damien, that’s the question.

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