14 May 2006

Identify Yourself

Believe it or not, the current concept of identity is a kind of new thing. Yeah, weird. I would have thought that identity was a sort of universal in time and space. Nope. Of the changes to constructs of identity in the past century, I am fairly certain that photography has had a major impact.

Today, your identity is practically synonymous with your photographic likeness. Passports (US) driver’s licenses, other official documents and identification forms include a picture of the identified person’s face. As simple as this is, there is a substantial weight of cultural prejudice against it. “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, “More than skin deep”, etc. are among the sayings that contradict the association between appearances and realities. But your likeness is your appearance, and your identity is reality. In practice, we simply DO associate a person’s face with their soul. Their appearance IS who they are, or at least an emphatic part of it.

That’s probably why the though of being possessed is so freaky, why movies where people switch bodies with someone else just keep on coming, and it is so entertaining to see people do things that are completely inconsistent with their appearance (like a dainty Charlie’s Angel knock 15 thugs flat in under 30 seconds).

Within art, there are a lot of problems associated with the deep, inseparable connection that most of us draw between bodies and identities. I think that these fall into a few general categories.

1. Bodies with no specific identity usually allude to a general, identifiable group. Bouguereau’s nymphs as shown here are simply lovely eye candy; part of a long, long tradition of lovely eye candy cuties. These girls aren’t individuals and have no soul, but the eye candy tradition stands in for identity and makes their lovely presence in the painting make sense.

2. Bodies with a known identity call up that person. Portraiture usually is about the sitter. Sometimes it says a bit too much, and it often says too little, but the aim is to marry identity and image. That’s what any successful portraiture does, anyway.

3. There are times when a body is shown and there is no identity, and no substitute identity. The body is just a body and there is no identity, no context. Doubtless, like the thought of being possessed, people tend to find these works of art troubling.

This is a Philip Pearlstein that I think fits this description. There is nothing to tell you who this body might belong to, and it isn’t being presented for consumption the way Bouguereau presented his.

Frankly, I’d like to see a bit more separation between my appearance and myself. I've thought about making myself a t-shirt that reads “I am NOT my appearance”, but that would be marshalling my appearance to the definition of my identity, and I’m not quite that stupid.


Anonymous said...

I am definitely not into the technical art jargon and new nothing about the concept of "eye candy". It is interesting to contemplate how much is eye candy in our everyday lives. Just try to watch TV, at least women are starting to get their share of eye candy in some of the advertising world. Equality sure has blessed us, but that is a different story and not your point. What does it say about my perspective if I find the Pearlstein work much more interesting than the nymphs? I am glad to see Impart Art-Weekly back on track or is it returning as a daily edition? Grandpa Dan

katperkins said...

Just out of curisousity, what would you make your appearance look like in order to accurately represent your identity?

A friend of mine did a photography project similar to these concepts. She works at Staples and so she is required to wear a name tag. She gets really annoyed b/c people come to the counter and call her by name like they know her. She took pictures of other people that work there and focused on the name tag, cut the head off and just showed the tag and the chest. They were pretty boring pictures, but an interesting concept similar to that Pearlstein painting. I like the painting though.

Matthew said...

Your true appearance is the funky fashion you get to wear when you hack into the matrix.

I think the next technological revolution in this area will be things like biological information in our passports and so forth.

Mary Ann said...

Interesting reactions. I don't know what it says about Dan that he prefers the Pearlsteins. To even guess, I'd have to know why, and that's too close to psychoanalysis for my competencies.

Kat, I think your classmate's project would have been better if she had chosen one name (something gender neutral like Terry) and photographed a bunch of completely different people with the same nametag. I think if I had to wear a nametag, I'd request a pseudonym to avoid the trouble she had a Staples.

As for me and my appearance/identity, I cultivated a very controled, subdued appearance for a long time to ensure that my appearance did not dominate my identity. At the time, I thought that it was really, really sad when someone's appearance was actually a lot more interesting than their personality. Oddly, that happens a lot. Anyway, these days I have very little time for my appearance, and I am not nearly as deliberate about things as I once was.

Anonymous said...

I like the word verification, lsd woa!, but that is not the reason for the comment. I like the Pearlseins since it made me think more. The nymphs just seemed pointless to me. Little creatures, nice eye candy, running around some weird guy in the woods. Enticing him maybe but nothing else. The Pearlstein had attention getting factors but not eye candy attention getting. The rocker is obviously moving from the shadows but not determined from the actual rocking chair. She has only one leg on the floor for rocking and the other one for her clothing or almost clothing to maintain her protection from being visually vulnerable.... There is no face to distract from the other factors that are her physically. She could be a real hag or a beautiful lady. She could be happy or really sad. More thinking and wondering. Grandpa Dan