Saturday, January 19, 2013

To be unique or to belong?

Self-portrait with a Tahitian woman (after Paul Gauguin).
24"×30" (61.0×76.2cm). Oil on canvas. December 2011
Returning to the theme of language and uniqueness from yesterday, our relationship with language -- the way we use it in our daily life, the way we change it, involuntarily, over time -- is shaped by two opposing (and quite familiar) forces: our desire to speak like everyone else, and our desire to be special and unique. In language, at least, both have what looks like a rational basis: it is necessary to speak "the same language" as everyone else does, in order to be understood (at least to some extent); and we have to say what we've got to say, which must contain at least some element of unexpected and unique (otherwise, it's probably better to remain silent). So, on the surface of it, the way we speak should be like everyone else's, but what we say should be our own.  

But it's not as simple as that (is it ever?) Because even in matters as practical as everyday communication, we tend to tweak the language so as not to be exactly like everyone else, to use our own voice, style, shade of language. And in what we say, we want to establish some common ground with our listeners, to let them recognize what they already know, if only in an attempt to add something new. And so our desire to be understood and to belong, and our desire to convey something of our own, something new -- they are in constant battle with one another even in our everyday speech, where the how and the what of what we say, its form and its meaning, might seem relatively easy to distinguish.

It becomes even more complicated in arts, where the form and the content, the how and the what, are inevitably inseparable. A work has to belong, to be a part of something larger than an individual life; and yet it must bear a Cain's mark of this individual life: a fresh heat of passion, a new pain of loss. The same as ever, yet experienced anew, as though it has never been experienced before. 

This, in the end, what this painting is about.   
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