With the New Year around the corner I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of authenticity. What does it mean to be “authentic”? On social media? In personal relationships? Regarding art especially, authenticity often gets lumped in with the concept of purity. There’s this idea that to be authentic one must essentially exist in a vacuum, paying no heed to outside input, advice, or influence. That a true artist’s ideas must be wholly original and her engagement with the world wholly altruistic.
We all know this is impossible. Even famous artists whose work is highly conceptual, non-(overtly)-commercial, and society-focused are motivated by something. If it isn’t money, it might be influence, power, prestige, or passion. It might be a desire to impress a significant other or challenge a parent’s expectations. Even those motivated by loose hunches and unidentified feelings know that these visceral urges are, like everything else, composed of influences at the end of the day.
So is the concept of authenticity dead? Can it mean anything in a world where we acknowledge the all-encompassing nature of influence and motivation?
I think it can. To me, the concept of authenticity is more closely related to transparency than purity. It hinges on self-awareness and a willingness to share your motivations (of which you are conscious) with others. I, for one, know that I am currently motivated by a desire to make money from my art. But money isn’t an end in and of itself. It symbolizes much more: independence from my parents, a sense of validation and camaraderie manifested by the realization that strangers are interested in my work, the ability to purchase new materials and experiment with them, and eventually, the freedom to continue to pursue my passions uninhibited by the necessity of more cash.
Some would nevertheless call anyone who admits to wanting to make money from art a sellout: someone who sacrifices passion on the altar of materialism. And maybe there is a grain of truth to this characterization, but so what? The standard that used to deem someone a sellout in this instance condemns us all as sellouts in every area of our lives where motivation “clouds” our “pure” pursuit of “divine purpose” (can you tell I’m being sarcastic?). You make work that always addresses the most talked-about social issue of the day? Sellout. You choose to pursue a career as an accountant to support your family even though you always wanted to be a graphic novelist? Sellout. You eat the last slice of pizza just so your brother can’t have it? SELL.OUT. (srsly, why would you do that?)
My point is not that there’s never an appropriate time to use the word sellout. It’s that the word needn’t be necessarily loaded with such a negative connotation. We all make choices that reflect our priorities and every designation of a priority necessitates sacrifice in other areas. It’s up to us to prioritize things that will lead to our long-term gratification. For some, that might be money, time, or family. For others, career, prestige, or consistency. None of these motivations are inherently bad. Context determines value-judgment. It is up to us to know ourselves well enough to choose wisely, and to change our priorities as we change as people.
This new year will be an important one for me, in which many of my priorities will be translated from thought into action. My resolve to make a living while retaining a high degree of creative agency will be put to the test as I strive for a greater degree of financial independence from my parents. The nature of my romantic relationship will change as we balance co-dependence with the pursuit of our personal goals. In all likelihood, I will lose the comfort of my current sense of place and be challenged with adjusting to a new setting.
A year ago, I could never have imagined facing these changes without overwhelming feelings of dread and anxiety. It is a testament to how far I have come in 2017 that I look to the future with tentative positivity and even a bit of excitement. I accredit the change to a lot of introspection that manifested in tangible action, prompted by healthy relationships and fortunate opportunities. I’ve gotten in good habits that have enabled me to know myself better, to consider my own strengths and limitations when faced with decisions, to trust myself more and recognize the possibility for change when times are bad. In 2018 I hope to continue this trajectory despite more difficult circumstances, to strive for success and arrive there through authenticity.
A Proposition: You have been given the opportunity to go on a 4:30 a.m. five-hour road-trip to upstate New York. Your destination: a small house off of a busy highway with no mattresses, wifi, cable television, or indoor plumbing (only the last item is a joke). Your task: sifting through furniture, household items, and the occasional thumbtack within a bag within a box within a bigger box within a bigger bag in order to compile and bring home items worth salvaging and toss items worth-not into a giant dumpster out back. Oh, and you'll be returning home that night so hopefully you're comfortable sleeping in a moving vehicle.
Would you do it?
Unless 1) the house holds some overwhelming sentimental significance, or 2) you've always wondered what it's like to work as one of the people who cleans houses on Hoarders, you probably--understandably--would not. However, mostly for reason 1 (and a little for reason 2) I feel inclined to make this trip with my mom and uncle.
The house is--was--my great grandma's, and although she died more than seven years ago my whole family still refers to it as "Baba's House". Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of times spent there as a kid: catching toads in the tall grass, walking through the woods behind the house, riding around the property on the back of a motorcycle with my uncles, staying up late with most of my extended family to watch that horrible 2003 Hulk movie, and, at the end of a long night, falling asleep on the porch to the peaceful sound of trucks zooming by (I'm not being sarcastic--that sound actually lulled me to sleep).
Despite the more elaborate, expensive and memorable vacations my family has taken, my recollection of the time spent at Baba's house fills me with a deep sense of wistful sentimentality that is not replicated by later memories. This feeling is connected to a fondness for a time in which the simple joy of being with family superseded that of going to some touristy destination, making dinner plans, or connecting to the wifi network. I'm not saying my family doesn't value time spent together now (we definitely do), but it's understandably harder to focus on the simple important things when things like constantly-updating smartphones and managing a work/work balance constantly stand between us and our better selves.
I don't expect that going back will enable me to relive the carefree-ness of being a kid or inspire me in some profound and inextricable way. Like the people who used to visit it every August, the house and property have weathered, matured, and changed over time. It has been renovated and re-painted, the woods behind it have shrunk as new houses have been built, it has been occupied by tenants on some occasions and abandoned on others, used as a pit stop between destinations and a humorous conversation topic at family dinners. In other words, it has been a long time since that house has matched the one in my memories. And now it's being sold.
Maybe I feel a particular connection to that place now because I'll be moving out of my house and into an apartment around the same time that it will be occupied by new permanent residents. I'm losing access to one symbol of family, comfort and stability, and gaining access to something shakier--something impermanent that requires a degree of self-sufficiency that I've never had to have.
So I'm setting my alarm for 4 a.m. this weekend. I probably won't sleep in the car. I'll probably take more furniture, decorative items and kitchenware than I'll need to use in my new apartment. I'll probably cry. But I'll also probably be glad I went.
True Story: last year on June fifteenth I got in a car accident. This year on June fifteenth I got in another car accident. These experiences have taught me the valuable life lesson that I should never drive on June fifteenth, and they've also left me with a weird instinctual belief in the connectedness of technically-disconnected events.
While writing my senior thesis I learned a little bit about the practical utility of formulating personal life narratives. Basically, the idea is that even if things don't technically happen for specific reasons, people think narratologically and thus, tend to identify causal relationships between life events and attribute broad significance to individual occurrences. So, hypothetically, if you were in two car accidents that you could not have prevented on the same day of two consecutive years, you might, hypothetically, see these occurrences as important life events worthy of further consideration...hypothetically. We think this way to make sense of the chaotic world around us, to feel informed and comfortable amidst unpredictable circumstances, to make value judgments that help us decide how to navigate the present and plan for the future.
Thinking literarily (not to be confused with "literally"), this means each individual is kinda like the protagonist of his or her own story. And if there's anything we know about protagonists of stories, it's that when they decide to buy blue curtains, what they're really doing is exemplifying their deeply-held sorrow regarding the human condition, cloaking themselves in a shadow of the past, and submitting to the oppressive force of eternal misfortune. DUH !!!!1!!1
When analyzing "fine literature" or "high art", we (well, some of us at least) tend to attribute elaborate motives and meanings to a characters actions regardless of whether the author or artist intended to imbue the actions with significance. When we approach art with the assumption that it contains stuff of merit, we LOOK for symbolism and make connections between spatially and temporally-removed events.
Although attributions of value can certainly get a little (read, a lot) bullshitty, I'm actually not arguing against making them. I actually think there are lots of benefits to approaching our own lives with the assumption that they contain stuff of merit. Benefits like not succumbing to a self-destructive nihilistic philosophy, even if that means occasionally taking certain fortune cookie fortunes a little too personally. Even though we have little control over the external events that interrupt our insular narratives, we have control over how we respond to them. We can choose to incorporate dumb unavoidable bullshit into our life narratives by viewing it as "a wakeup call" or "a formative experience" or we can continue referring to it as "that thing that should never have happened to ME." The difference is that the first response has the potential to spur actual personal reflection and change, maybe even an eventual sense of accomplishment. The second...I dunno, a prolonged feeling of resentment and confusion? A scenario in which you're surrounded by boxes of half-eaten oreos watching re-runs of "The Bachelorette" and low-key afraid to get out of bed?
If you're wondering how I was able to provide such an oddly specific example, it's because I've been there. In scenario two. Around the time when I was in the first car accident, things seemed pretty meaningless. When it happened all I kept thinking was, whyyyyy is this happening to me? This was not part of the plan (not that I knew what the plan was, of course--I just knew it didn't involve a car accident). The most recent June fifteenth felt different, because a lot has changed in a year. Not in my circumstances, or surroundings, but in my attitude. Through a consistent effort to confront the things I was most afraid to encounter, to be honest with myself and others even when it rocked the boat, and to pursue the weird things I wanted, I've gained a stable kind of confidence and a general acceptance of the inherent (subjective) importance of my own experience. This is something I can only describe as a form of faith.
I definitely wish this car accident hadn't happened. Dealing with insurance companies and car people and my own lack of knowledge about cars (see phrase: "car people") is really frustrating and tedious and annoying and other negative adjectives. But the fact that the accident happened on the same day as the accident last year has prompted me to reflect on the differences between me-now and me-then. To think about the colossal amount of positive change that has happened in such a short period of time. Painstaking and uncomfortable change that has nevertheless enabled me to see this decidedly negative event as something that "just is" and can be a building block toward something better, rather than as a meaningless intrusion on my pre-structured life.
Even though my car is probably going to be scrapped, the ideas that it represent will continue to hold weight. Even if to other people it's all just a coincidence--even if it IS just a coincidence--that doesn't change the gut-sense of importance I feel yet cannot quantify.
And it doesn't change the fact that I'm not driving next June fifteenth.
I watched this Netflix documentary on minimalism a few months ago. Other than the fact that the two central narrators were the kind of people who make being nice look like a bad thing (a story for another time), what resonated with me was the way adopting a minimalist lifestyle changed how people viewed the objects in their surroundings. For most of them, letting go of so much of their stuff enabled them to appreciate the beauty and/or functionality of the few items they did keep, to rely less on material objects to provide entertainment or distraction, and to be more conscious and deliberate consumers.
Enter, me. Lugging home a wicker chair that's "way too nice to be out on the neighbor's curb," graciously accepting a friend's offer of a coffee-stained dress cuz "the fabric might be useful for a project I'm working on," leaving the bank with three free pens, because, well, "you can never have too many pens!" In other words, my compulsive consumption habits and everyday attitude toward objects represents an affront to minimalists everywhere.
But I like the ideaaaaa of minimalism. I'm often fascinated by objects and the potential they hold--which is why I want to remove them from the dumpster and tape them to my wall (that's a normal thing people do, right?), but I'm aware that having so much stuff often impedes my ability to appreciate, organize, and consider the (in)significance of the items I own, While I love having so much material around me for inspiration, having a ton of stuff can actually become an obstacle to creativity when I'm overwhelmed with so many options that offer so little direction. I often refer to this feeling as sensory overload.
On the bright side, I have no trouble getting rid of things. My room is in a constant state of flux. I try to give away as much as I get and I have no sentimental attachment to most objects I own. But I find that kinda sad. Why fill my living space with these items in the first place if I don't value them, or if they don't contribute to the space in a way that I find significant? Things like minimalism documentaries and a room I've lived in since childhood that has borne the influence of so many places, times, and states of mind, bring questions like these to the forefront.
In all honesty, I don't think I could ever be a minimalist, because I don't really want to be one. Sure, having ample wall-space to rest your eyes is nice, but is it nicer than a collection of mildly humorous greeting cards you got in second grade that you might one day cut up and make into a brilliant art piece? I think not.
As is true for most dilemmas, I think the appropriate answer to the minimalist/maximalist struggle probably contains the word "moderation". I think it probably does not contain the phrase "constantly switch between each extreme, continuing to exhaust your own mental capacities until the only viable option is doing nothing." Yeah, I'm gonna go with "moderation."
Have you ever had a day that's SO busy you don't even have time to write about your FEELINGS??? If so, then boy oh boy, have I got a story for you.
BUT FIRST. Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Talia, and it's been over one week since I've written about my feelings.
It all started last Tuesday. It was my first day of work--on the job--as they say. I woke up fresh-faced, prepared, ready to take on any challenge that could possibly occur between the hours of nine and five. But little did I know that I could NEVER prepare myself for the horror of what was to come next: a day spent doing *omitted*.
Basically, when I got home and sat down to write I realized that even though there was a lot of interesting stuff I wanted to blog about, I couldn't. Not for any lack of interest or discipline (well, maybe a little lack of discipline), but because I kept worrying about who might see the post and whether I might incur some professional penalty for speaking totally freely on a public forum.
That's the "catch" when it comes to something like blogging. Like, it's cool when you're talking about grandma's favorite recipes or that one time you gave a homeless man a loaf of bread, but not when you're giving 100% honest commentary in real time about the dramas of the day-to-day, or revealing less-than-flattering facts about yourself. Because there's always potential negative consequence lurking around the corner.
You know that quote, "dress for the job you want,"? I feel like that quote is supposed to imply that you should dress really nice, like, that if you're not itchy and uncomfortable, maaaaybe, just maybe, you're doing it wrong. But when I hear that quote I picture the job I want. Granted, the image I conjure up is pretty pixelated, but it's something like owning my own business, something that allows a high degree of creative freedom, that entails working really hard but on projects that I initiate. Still, I wonder, does dressing for the job you want EVER mean wearing Hawaiian-flower cotton shorts and an old yellow sweatshirt with paint stains on it (literally what I'm wearing right now).
For my sake, I hope so.
Currently, I'm considering what to include in this blog post. My first blog post. My people-never-forget-first-impressions-what-will-the-readers-think blog post. Three sentences in and it's dawned on me that the readers won't think anything. They will direct their gazes toward worthwhile elsewheres where thoughts have not yet been compacted in a social-conscious digestive system that only churns out different variations of the same thing (yeah, I'm pretty sure that was a metaphor about poop).
What I'm trying to say is, why do I care? This blog is MINE. It's SUPPOSED to be about ME. Not about making a particular impression, appealing to a specific audience, some third example that makes this sentence feel complete.
It feels oxymoronic (or maybe just moronic) that writing for myself about whatever I want might possibly maybe be more daunting than writing with a concrete goal or specific reader in mind. I just graduated from college. Maybe I feel a void where a check-plus used to be. I think being an adult has something to do with being your own check-plus-giver. Or feeling like a check-plus on the inside despite the fact that none hang on your refrigerator...and that you don't actually own your own refrigerator.
I feel the weight of responsibility to derive meaning from my own experiences. I see the space to create experiences worth deriving meaning from. I just wonder if flailing around is the most effective use of that space.
Luckily, I have the luxuries of time, a paying job, post-summer plans, parents who have yet to kick me out of the house, a house I have yet to want to be kicked out of, and a TON of ideas. The materials are here. If I mess around long enough, something good is bound to happen, right?