Artists Without an Art
How the culture of authenticity undermines itself
“I can never bring you to realise the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumbnails, or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace.” So says Sherlock Holmes to his sidekick in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “A Case of Identity.” The detective is describing the method of minute observation for which he is so famous. By paying attention to the smallest details, he has just deduced with a single glance that a particular woman is a short-sighted typist who left home in a hurry after scribbling a letter.
This ability to decode appearances makes for a wonderful caricature, but it also reveals something profound about modern culture, something that is only more relevant today. As Richard Sennett observes in his book The Fall of Public Man, Holmes belongs to a world where it is assumed that a person’s way of dressing, speaking and acting can reveal fundamental truths about his or her character. Most of us share this assumption to one degree or another, and it can lead to intense neurosis. In Sennett’s account, it was the Victorians who first imagined that identity could be immanent in appearance. In the mid-19th century, the fear of being read by others – the fear that your appearance might disclose something shameful about you – drove people to adopt increasingly cautious and uniform wardrobes, concealing themselves behind bonnets and veils, floor-length dresses and dark broadcloth suits. Recall that this was an era when measuring someone’s skull was thought to be a method for detecting criminal tendencies.
But our own time is in some ways harsher still. Our culture is ruled by a particular ideal of authenticity, one that encourages us to express our own unique personality in our own way, rather than adhering to social conventions. The principle that we should bare our authentic character to the world, that our value lies in our ability to express what is special about us, effectively makes us responsible for the judgments of others. It is no longer just a question of what our appearance might reveal, but of our own failure to reveal something interesting.
This introduces a peculiar anxiety to the problem of how we should look, speak and act. We want to express ourselves, we feel we should express ourselves, but we cannot control what others will read in us. We cannot even be sure if what we are expressing is really our own self, rather than an effort to impress others or a routine we have copied from elsewhere. Social media has exposed these dilemmas in the cruellest ways. It makes us desperate to appear spontaneous and charismatic, even as we fear that a misjudged phrase or image will be taken as a reflection of our true, revolting nature.
Sennett’s ultimate diagnosis of this problem is both brilliant and, to the modern mind, highly counterintuitive. He argues that the culture of authenticity, by rejecting manners and conventions as fake, actually deprives us of the tools we need in order to be expressive. We assume that formality and expressiveness are opposed to one another, because formal behaviour is impersonal and expression must be personal. But formality, which channels behaviour into well-defined cultural forms, actually goes hand in hand with expressiveness. For expression is a kind of communication, and communication requires a language; it requires a system of signifiers whose meaning an audience can grasp. Or to paraphrase Sennett, an artist needs an art.
To illustrate this argument, Sennett takes us back before Sherlock Holmes, before the Victorian veil, to Paris and London in the 18th century. This was the era of wigs and powdered faces, coffee houses and salons, men in silk stockings and women in elaborate dresses. This culture was very good at expression, because it was formal and impersonal. Interaction was highly ritualised and codified, down to the forms taken by spontaneous outbursts of emotion in the theatre. As such, people could articulate moods, feelings and ideas through their appearance and actions. There were specific meanings attached to particular ways of moulding the hair, or the exact position of a mole applied to the face. The body was not a window to the soul, but a mannequin that could convey all kinds of messages in the way it was adorned.
There could be no Sherlock Holmes in this culture, because the individual personality was not there in public to be scrutinised. In its place were the signs that the individual had chosen to display to the world, signs that were stable enough to be expressively adapted and manipulated.
Conventions and manners can, of course, ossify into rigid procedures that stifle expression rather than facilitating it. But it is still more difficult to be expressive without them. Imagine, for instance, that convention demands I stop and bow when I meet an acquaintance. This gesture is full of expressive potential. The way I choose to perform it – solemnly, enthusiastically, reluctantly, sarcastically – can communicate a great deal. By contrast, if there is no firm convention around greetings, because we believe everyone should do as his or her authentic character demands, it is much more difficult to express anything. You might hug me, but I can’t be sure if that means you’re glad to see me. Maybe you greet everyone like this, or maybe you hugged me because you weren’t sure how to greet me.
In this way, the culture of authenticity produces a grim irony. Having rejected formal codes as too impersonal, it replaces them with conformity. Lacking a language to formulate, even to ourselves, what it is we want to express, and fearing the Holmesian scrutiny of our audience, we find it safer to choose from the menu of existing options. This results in trends that, for all their familiarity, can convey little meaning beyond the choices made by individuals. The theorist Byung-Chul Han, much influenced by Richard Sennett, calls this “the hell of the same.” Despite the imagined link between fashion and self-expression, most people’s appearance today is basically nondescript. It might place them in some social category, like class or professional milieu, but this is hardly the mark of an authentic individual.
All this being said, we should not overstate the difficulties of expression, or we will miss an important way that the ideal of authenticity is perpetuated. The cultural patterns that carry meaning have not disappeared completely. They have receded to a latent state where only the most talented and perceptive artists can make use of them. As the language of culture becomes ambiguous and obscure, those who can still practice it creatively – in self-presentation, in speech, in the design of products – shine that much more brightly. Such masters seem to show that authenticity really can be expressed. They provide a model for the rest of us, even if we can only imitate them in the most hesitant, fumbling way.
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