Sunday, September 7, 2008

identity grid

I was walking around our building's First Thursday open studio, and in the back of my mind, as I chatted with artists of all stripes, was the question, "How and why do they call themselves artists?" Not in an insulting way, but honestly what makes them different? And the best answer I could come up with, is marketing. People generally buy art from artists, so if you want to make your living drrawing, painting, sculpting, ceramicizing, etc., then you need to call yourself an artist.

I think it's interesting how in the world of people who make things for money, you can divide their self-definitions two ways: definition by what sort of subject-matter they choose, and definition by what sort of medium they work in. In the arts, this means you're a portraitist or a painter; in graphic design it means you're a cartographer or a book designer; in writing it means you're a financial writer or a journalist.

In any of these examples, there are conventions, there is a sense of commonality of language and understanding when two or more people of like self-identity meet. The narrower the common self-definition (financial ceramicisists working in terracotta mergers and acquisitions), the more they will share a network of shared experience and understanding. And the closer they get to having the same experiences in their work, the better the chance that their conversation will move from "isn't that interesting what you're doing over there" to "don't poach my turf." When two people interested in the same things realize they're fighting for work the same clients. Or the same tenure committee. When one or both of them decide the town ain't big enough for both of them.

I'm trying out the thesis developed in the discussion over the Grid (in cartographic terms), that the problem isn't in the gridding per se, its in the reimposition of that grid back on the subject. Does that apply to identity? I'm thinking of ongoing discussions in meeting about Quaker identity, but I think it applies to all identity groups: Is the problem less with the identity group and more with when the code which binds us is then reimposed back on us?

We human beings come up with structures, codes, grids, networks, any numbers of systems we lay our understandings of the world over the top of. Saying we shouldn't do that because systems end up dividing us is like saying we should stop using language because we'll be misunderstood.

We also like to form community (or better yet find community, because its easier) around identity, to be able to say "these are my people." And it seems sensible then to put these two together, and to codify what it is that brings us together. Maybe it's a hierarchy (I'm with you because of a feudal system, or because we're part of this family tree). Maybe it's a creed (I agree with enough of the planks in your platform, I'm in). Maybe it's just cultural clues (You like chicken? I like chicken!). Maybe it's a bunch of people who all know the same songs (I know I'm not the only one who had a near-religious experience at a Pete Seeger concert).


The problem arises (I would submit) when we then look at the "official" set of common-identity markers, and judge ourselves (or worse, allow others in the group to judge us) based on our adherence to those markers. To make the Grid the marker of value, not the thing itself.


Anonymous said...

Hi Nat,
I'm back. We'll have to catch-up via other means. But for now - I like your thoughts here, but I want to try to connect your final paragraph to your first. In what ways would you say (or would you?) that the artists in NK are allowing the grid to define them and/or be reimposed on them? I have the ability to be both a linear and an abstract thinker at the same time, so be aware!

natcase said...

Hi Brandon!

Off the top of my head:

For cartographers, it's thinking of the world in terms of maps I'm talking about: to the extant that we see the world through the lens of the maps we make, instead of seeing it as whole as possible, and then mapping some portion of it.

For artists, there is I think a general expectation that discourse will not be rigorous.

It's also in terms of what the artists choose to portray. Isee a lot of art that looks like other art: portraits, still-lifes, landscapes, and abstract compositions. There was one artist upstairs I had a good conversation with who is working in collage and pen-and-ink, whose compositions are more open-ended. I like that. He had a nice charcoal drawing of a ripped-apart cassette tape over a plat map. You can see the appeal on my end...