October 12, 2004
The New Identity
So it’s finally happened… the administration has finally decided to allow an art major to speak at commencement. Probably because we would much rather hold up a painting for 15 minutes than to actually have to talk about something. So here goes...
I suppose that every major transition in one’s life balances precariously between the past and the future. Our lives are placed in a certain limbo – trapped somewhere between nostalgia for times spent and anticipation for times coming. Within all the hustle and hullabaloo that marks such occasions though, there always seems to be a fleeting moment where the world hovers timelessly for just a second, and we feel a brilliant surge of thoughts and emotions. A smile perhaps, creeps across our face, and, as we stand suspended in momentary reflection, our deepest and truest identity surfaces. From that moment forward, the world seems slightly more honest and a tad less confusing, and we seem to know ourselves just a little bit better.
Although we often hear that we are the ‘sum or our experiences;’ I argue that our individuality is much more complex than simply experience stacked upon experience. Granted, experience does play an imperative role, but we can’t possibly take everything with us throughout our lives. We lose some baggage along the way. We selectively forget and struggle to hold on. And yet, our personal identity is deeply invested in the past. Transitions allow us to reflect upon the past and the investments therein, and in these brief identity-revealing moments, we acknowledge where we have been, who we have known, and what we have accomplished. We take these memories, lessons, and investments with us into the future, and, even though they don’t guarantee an easy path or a predictable tomorrow, they do give some direction and purpose to our lives.
In what direction however, are we heading as a collective? Who are we as a culture? as an American culture? I fear that our past is rapidly slipping away from us. Today, our culture, our collective identity, is best characterized by overindulgence and excess, and not by tradition. We are the wealthiest and most wasteful country on the planet, yet our thirst for entertainment, quick-fixes, and trendy stuff seems thoroughly unquenchable – the past is all too quickly becoming outdated. Our collective identity seems less concerned with times spent and much more enamored with the technology and the commodity of tomorrow.
Undeniably though, the future is providing us with previously inconceivable advances – genetic engineering to prevent biological defects, heart bypasses to save a stroke victim, palm pilots, liver transplants, hi-definition TVs, stem cells, picture phones, digital cameras, digital cars, and digital lives. These commodities supposedly make life easier, but no one ever questions whether or not they make life better. Jeffrey Deitch in his Post-Human Catalogue suggests that “there is a sense that we are advancing but not progressing.” The problem, I believe, is that with these new technologies and medias, we no longer need to invest ourselves in the past. Because we are addressed as demographics, market niches, and mindless users, our individualism is quickly becoming endangered. Consumerism constantly tells us that the past is old-fashioned, weak, and too slow. ‘Old’ used to be 10 years ago, but now, it’s 10 months ago. Collective conveniences are replacing personal investments at lighting speed.
Alright. So by now you’re probably thinking that I am some sort of Bohemian leftist who uses a quill dipped in ink instead of a computer. I assure you that this is not the case. Regardless, my intent is not to stand up here and merely rant on about the problems we face in an increasingly technological world. On the contrary, I aim to present a new way of looking at the future that embraces the past and redefines the collective identity. So in that spirit, it is time for an example:
About two months ago, I was flipping through the New York Times in search of the crossword puzzle, on which, incidentally, I never answer more than five clues, and probably only carry it around with me to make me feel smart. Regardless, I stumbled upon a full page advertisement for an AT&T office network. On the left, was a man lounging behind his desk in a high-rise office building. On the right, sitting across from him was a flattened image of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker. Instead of being made of marble however, the thinking man, with his elbow on his knees and his fist supporting his chin, was made of streaming ones and zeros, commonly known as binary code, the language of computers. Above, the caption read: “Can your network think for itself?”
I was so stunned by this advertisement that I couldn’t help but question: Can you think for yourself? Can you think without your network? Since when has thought been synonymous with the mindless processing of a machine? The ad however, was obviously not meant to provoke such a reaction. The average viewer is expected to respond with “wow, that’s just what I need” or “think about how much time I could save.” Time to do what, I ask? Invest more time in a pastless future?
The next question should instead be: how do we assert ourselves as individuals when technology and consumerism addresses us as a collective? The solution is two-fold: we must begin to think critically about the visual world, and we must reinvest ourselves in the past.
We need to recognize that big businesses and the media are feeding us prepackaged images and objects that speak only toward immediate solutions and artificial realities. The recent plague of Reality TV shows suggests that plastic surgery can improve our lives, that dating four people at one time is acceptable, and that eating a pig’s brain in under a minute is a true test of courage. Yet surely, we all know that there is nothing ‘real’ about these documentaries, that they are contrived, and that the characters and situations are glamorized and artificial. But we are captivated by them anyway; they are part of our daily visual input. Reality shows have become the gladiators of modern society – reality as entertainment. We similarly experience advertisements, movies, buildings, icons, graphics, paintings, drawings, and photographs on a daily basis, and yet, we never once stop to think about what we are really looking at. They have become background noise and endless static. As a society, we seem to reflect less and consume more. We look at everything, but see nothing. Our senses are overloaded. The air is so dense with media no-it-alls and corporate branders that we seem to be best defined by the combination of products we use instead of by the contributions we make. Jean Baudrillard in his article entitled The Ecstasy of Communication comments that “Speech is free perhaps, but I am less free than before: I no longer succeed in knowing what I want, the space is so saturated, the pressure so great from all who want to make themselves heard.”
The fact remains however, that we live first in a visual world. And for some reason we don’t even know how to begin to comprehend it. Using art as an example, some people commonly say “well, I just don’t understand it,” and as a society, we’re fine with that. And as an institution, we likewise place the most importance on the written word. We are challenged to think critically and to respond passionately on paper alone. In the classroom we explore entire eras, movements, and cultures based solely on the words they say, and not by the things they make, the art they produce, and the images they value. For some reason today, art is considered elitist and scary such that only an educated few are worthy of discussing it. The fear is so great, that we’ve conveniently locked the best work away in museums and galleries so that people don’t even have to look at it every day. Instead – and I know we’ve all done this – we stand and stare before each piece for the appropriate two minutes hoping that through some process of intellectual osmosis we will somehow be able to tap into the genius of the artist.
It doesn’t have to be that hard. People are so afraid that they won’t understand; that they’ll get it wrong, and that there is a right answer. There is no right answer. You don’t have to understand, you just have to think. Artwork aside, the point is, we should be actively thinking about and criticizing the images we face every day. Even though the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” is horribly trite, it’s also strikingly true. Our job then, as educated graduates and as educated citizens is to decipher what those thousands words are and to decide what they mean to us.
Now I know that today, of all days, is the last day you want to be challenged to think… perhaps invited to drink, but not to think. We have been thinking for the last four years… we are tired and drained, but I extend the challenge anyway.
And as we begin to sift through our dense visual world and the motivations of technology, we can begin to take back our collective identity. And, just in case you still don’t believe that the modern machine is striping our identity bare, I have a few questions for you:
What was the last thing you made with your hands? some object that was a true extension of you? When was the last time you wrote a letter? and not some quick email or easy Hallmark card, but a real letter, stamped and mailed? When was the last time you had a conversation face-to-face? and not some starbucks-what’s-up-how-are-the-kids-i-like-your-shoes conversation, but a real one, that meant something, that made you feel like changing the world or changing your life or changing your mind? I hope that we do these things regularly, but I suspect that we don’t often enough.
And the solution? Invest yourself in the past. And we, class of 2004, have done just that. Both inside and outside the classroom, we haven’t just learned, we have processed, responded to, and invested in every part of our education. We have challenged this institution, and I hope our professors, as much as they have challenged us. In this spirit, we leave this incredible place with a new identity… one that allows us to intelligently criticize and improve the world in which we live. As you pull away from Wabash today – possibly with a tear in your eye – take a moment to transition… to recognize our unparalleled four-year adventure… and every person, lesson, and experience that goes with it. Hold on to what you need, and forget the rest. And if you ever feel like your identity is in danger of being swallowed up by the collective, never fear. Just… unplug, disconnect, defrag… and make something. Write something. Don’t fear the visual world. Reclaim the object. Do something assertively… individual – and start, a revolution.