Style and the Possible Selves

Would living a world in which everyone is enlightened feel comfortable? In which no idea is revolutionary because every person has access to the total field of knowledge? There are no great authors because everyone is a great author. Everyone a great architect. A brilliant artist. Outstanding doctor. Master of theoretical physics. Concert pianist. Electrical engineer and auto mechanic, programmer. Fluent in at least five languages.

Of course I think it’s fair to say it’s impossible that everyone could have such a broad range of mastery. Mastery is achieved by not doing things almost as much as it is defined by practice. Focus entails disregarding those things that are not in the spotlight of one’s vision.

To what extent is mastery motivated by the desire to “win”? To be “the best”? By fear of being anything but?

Early in my artistic practice, I became aware of the vertigo of opportunity, that my work could manifest in many forms. Infinite forms, actually. My impulse to take my work in one direction would be overridden by the impulse to take my work in a different direction. I’d see an artist, let’s say Vermeer, whose style I desired to imitate. I’d then see another, Eva Hesse, and I’d begin wondering how I could imitate both at the same time. This is natural for the young artist, because the artist is involved in the quest to find his or her style.

“Style”, to the artist, can mean two things. Style, obviously, refers to the way the artist makes work; that way of doing things unique to him or her. But in one sense, style is iconic. It is a particular look. Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are stylish in this vein. No one can make a painting that has this “look” without it looking like a Pollock. Notice, style here used is the vehicle of transformation from a noun to an adjective. Pollock-esque.

The other meaning of the word “style” is one’s particular way of doing. The distinction between these two meanings is subtle. The biggest difference is that style, in the first sense, requires explicit uniqueness. The quality of being unique, different, is here associated with having style. Thus style in the first sense, relies on that binary of all binaries, self versus other. One has one’s style only insofar as one does not have the style of another. Style, in the second sense of the word, does not require explicit uniqueness, for it is entirely possible that one’s style is not too different from the style of another, just as one’s personality might not be too different from that of others’. Perhaps, even, one finds one’s style in the other, in the world. One see’s the work of another and recognizes oneself. This artist then makes work that will be called, if one holds to the idea of style in the first sense, imitative. “Imitative”, of course, is here a condemnation.

The pressure to have style in this first sense might actually disrupt one’s ability to discover one’s style in the second. Common artistic practice has allowed for the imitation of other artists, even outright copying for the purposes of education (the practice of the master copy). Working in the style of the times has been something acceptable throughout history.

Perhaps the development of style in the first sense is the consequence of the accumulation of too much history. Our realizing that the stuff that looks different, often defiantly, ultimately is the stuff that gets remembered. The revolutions are more exciting than the peace. The impulse to be one of the revolutionaries is a consequence of the degree to which revolutionaries are praised. Or perhaps the impulse to style in the first sense is a consequence of the desire to sell a product. Uniqueness, here, is a concept that imitates the economic value rewarded to something rare in nature, like gold. Style=scarcity. An artist develops style in the same spirit as the frontiersmen migrated west. Or, finally, style in the first sense might be a response to the media through which we interact with images. Bombarded by images through screens, one grows bored of that which seems common place and one seeks to develop a style that breaks the mold (“break the internet”).

Developing style, in the first sense, has very little to do with developing style in the second because, whereas the second is an effort to, essentially, “get with” one’s own nature, the other is better defined as an effort to “get away” from others’. Or, perhaps more properly, to get ahead of others’.

Perhaps this might seem counter-intuitive, but imitating is a great exercise in learning about oneself while trying to develop in isolation is not. In truth, artist developing style in either sense are engaged in an effort to gain some understanding of the world. The self/other binary, like all binaries, is a false opposition. The artist that attempts to develop style in the second sense is free to see the world as part of his/herself. The artist attempting to develop style in the first must treat the world as if it is something s/he pushes away from.

Where does style come from? From the self? To develop style, one need not do things. One needs to stop doing certain things. Children are so idealized for their free nature and creative potential, but one must realize this is only their basic natures at play. Children don’t learn to be themselves, they unlearn it, or perhaps it’s more fair to say they are taught to repress. But if the child’s nature is free and playful, then so too is the adult’s, obviously. The adult, however, must unlearn all the ways to not be the self. All the rules and lies and empty promises that bury the self must be disentangled.

One might wonder, why not just stop doing this to people and save them time later in life?

If one does rediscover the self, one will realize the confusion the term “developing style” creates. “Developing style” seems to imply style in the first sense, of finding some unique resource. Another way of understanding the process of developing style is as simply a process of maturity. Style is already there, one has it whether one likes it or not. Developing style is a process of acting on the world then seeing how it acts back. Since self and other are not as opposed as the binary implies, acting on the world then seeing how it acts back is like yelling into a canyon to hear one’s distorted voice yell back.

Developing style is like playing a game. It is an exercise in implications. One does not repeat the drawings of childhood because one has already made those drawings. After the drawing was made by the child, the drawing was looked at by the child, and the drawing implied new opportunities for future drawings.

Of course these opportunities are infinite, which is the problem. One is free, infinitely, yet one’s infinite freedom is defined by one’s situation. The drawing creates the situation. The next drawing creates a new situation, but this situation is different from the situation that would have become manifest had the artist made different decisions, or in other words, activated other potentials. One can imagine the path a ball takes as it falls down a pachinko board.

Style in the second sense of “one’s particular way”, then, is defined by the potentials one realizes. One’s choices. Of course one’s choices do not need to be different from others’ in order to be one’s own, but they almost inevitably are, in however subtle of a way. The pachinko board metaphor becomes more descriptive if we assign it greater complexity. Imagine a 4-D pachinko board, in which the ball falls for a lifetime.

Seeing as the choice to actualize one potential negates all other potentials, one can imagine alternative futures for all these potentials. One can imagine all these divergent selves. The Buddhist-self, punk-rock-self, heroin-addict-self, football-player-self, mountain-climber-self, the capitalist-self, the communist-self, the terrorist-self, the architect-self, the star-trek-fan-self, the small-business-owner-self, infinitely onward. This is where from the identity crises arises, from the impression that the self one has actualized is not integral.

The quest for one’s true style is the quest to allow the ball to fall down the pachinko board with as little interference as possible. This is consistent with the teachings of Taoism, the natural way.

Of course as an artist, one might feel, especially when one is younger, a strange sadness at the prospect of not actualizing every potential. Ideas flow into the mind. One desires to create works with fabrics, works that utilize linear perspective, photo-realist paintings, neoclassical sculptures, action paintings, new media installations. One realizes that doing one negates doing the other, and if one cannot accept this, one never progresses as an artist. This principle, by the way, of not progressing out of fear of losing potentials, applies to far more than just art.

All one’s possible selves are manifest in others. Every potential one chooses not to actualize is actualized in others. This is cause for relief, because it means one is not in competition with others. Self and other are, necessarily, cooperative. In others one can meet every self one did not become, some more like oneself, some less. Realizing this, one desires that others succeed in their efforts, that others become their best selves, because this is the only way one can possibly see so many potentials actualized. There is no “best of all time”.

By now I’ve very much implicated the terms “style” and “self”, because style is the external manifestations of the self. One does not only have style in art or fashion. One’s walk, gestures, and manner of speech is stylish.

When one views style through and economic lens, one becomes necessarily anxious. One is treating possible selves as a scarce commodity, and attempts to pick the self that seems most valuable to others. One’s sense of self becomes dependent on how it is valued by others. If it is not valued by others, one sees oneself as worthless. One wishes to be a different self. Unfortunately, the pachinko ball does not magically teleport to a different spot on the board. One falls into depression, feeling unloved and undervalued, accepting admiration as the same thing as love, which is easy to do when the “like” button is associated with the symbol of a heart.

So, could we handle a world in which everyone is enlightened? Not in the sense as I first described, that everybody is equally as great as everybody else in every possible way, but in which everybody is great in their own way. In the humanities, in which style is commoditized, a problem would become manifest. If every artist is a great artist, every writer a great writer, every musician a great musician, then there are far greater resources. Here we see how style has taken on an economic dimension: artists want to eat. Insofar as their capacity to afford food, shelter, clothing is contingent upon the uniqueness of their product, they do not want to imitate others, for fear of not developing value, and they do not want others to imitate, for fear that some other artist might supersede oneself by developing the style further.

I’m interested that so much analysis of the heterogeneity of contemporary art seems to focus on so many things but this, that fear is among the motives.

The cool sexual appeal attempted by so many gallery goers during a reception might very well be an attempt to play the most economically feasible character. Fear of not getting the proper attention, of not developing the proper connections, of not gaining access to rare resources impress themselves upon one’s character. David Foster Wallace would refer to this as a fear of being really human.

The more great doctors we have, the better. Great lawyers, politicians, city planners, construction workers, teachers, etc. But in the so called “humanities”, it appears there is only so much room on the lifeboat.

Perhaps it might be worth imagining a remedy. Perhaps if we can resolve this problem, we can understand how to erode that barrier that exists between the “art world” and the “world world”. Implied in my writing is the belief that doing so would be a liberation.



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