Distance

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When we label something we isolate it from the continuity of experience; we fish it from the sea of possibilities so that we can know it, so we can hold it in our arms whilst a picture is taken. A label can be useful, but it can also work to create difference: in defining what something is, we also define what it is not, and a dichotomy takes shape. Again, this construct may be useful; but danger awaits when we take it literally, and forget its arbitrary nature.

This is particularly pertinent when it comes to labelling people. In placing a label upon a person, or a mass of people – in creating a ‘type’ – we also create borders where before they did not exist. A label allows us to establish distance between the self and the other, and to forget the thread that connects us. The notion of distance is literalized and becomes concrete, leading us into an outlook based on difference, rather than connectedness. Blinded to the winding road between us, we build a wall upon it, transforming shades of gray into black and white, liquid into solid. From behind the safety our wall – our fictions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – we can hurl stones and bombs into the unknown.

We can think of a society as a body, as a single organism of disparate yet fundamentally connected parts, which are reliant on each other for the functioning of the whole. We may label a part for a variety of reasons - to diagnose, to categorize – but whenever we label it we also hold it up to the light, isolating it from the continuity of the body. Whilst this action has its uses, it is not without its dangers. Perhaps a limb is causing the body trouble; it is weakened, and has become a source of discomfort. Instead of learning to live with it – to adapt our lifestyle to its demands - we may choose to amputate our weakness, to cut it off and forget its existence. In this way we abdicate responsibility for the body-as-whole, dividing it up into a series of parts, each one vying for its own autonomy – its own right not to be held back by the other – each becoming equally expendable to the other. Every part becomes vulnerable, faces the chop. The body forgets its nature, its connectedness, cutting off its head to save its feet.

As we’ve seen, artists – as representatives of the in-between – may pose a threat to various elements and structures of society, and there are those who may wish to discredit them. The label ‘artist’ allows a distancing of a person from the whole – of limb from body – a distance that creates vulnerability. The person-as-artist slips from the continuity, becomes anomalous.

In this way the label ‘artist’ holds potential as a tool of division, threatening to isolate an individual from the mass of men. This division works on a number of levels; not only is the artist able to be persecuted more easily when distanced, he is also able to be painted as an aberrance, his brilliance or madness explained away on account of his distance from the norm, a distancing that works to reinforce the cult of the artist (the artist as fundamentally distinct from the masses). ‘Artist’ (as label) becomes a valuable tool of the State, the term blinding the masses to their own potentialities as in-between people, taking an area of experience and branding it as a specialism. The in-between – the sea in each of us – becomes the domain of a few: those strange folk we call ‘artists’ …

We’ve seen why the State may not want its populace to enter the sea - to become ‘artists’ - and with this in mind we can understand why the label is often denigrated in the popular consciousness. Through separating the artist from the masses, the State is able to dress him in the aforementioned costumes - the deviant, the fool, the dreamer, the impractical rebel – and in so doing, discredit the idea of the in-between. When the artist himself voluntarily emphasises his own uniqueness he unwittingly plays into the hands of the State, furthering the separation of ‘art’ and ‘life’.

As a person of the sea, the artist is someone who is suspicious of labels, realizing their tendency to obscure fluidity and to promote structures and borders; and he is mindful of our constant temptation to take these borders literally, to forget their impermanence. In constructing the artist as a type – as something else, someone else - the term is removed from its true essence, as in-between person: as an element of us all.



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1 comment:

  1. 'Is there anything worse for a state than to be split and fragmented, or anything better than cohesion and unity?

    [...] What is more, such a state most nearly resembles an individual. For example, when one of us hurts his finger, the whole partnership of body and soul, constituting a single organism under a ruling principle, perceives it and is aware as a whole of the pain suffered by the part, and so we say that the man in question has a pain in his finger. And the same holds good of any other part in which a man suffers pain or enjoys pleasure.'

    'Yes,' he agreed, 'and, as you said, the same thing is most nearly true of the best-run communities.'

    'That is because such a community will regard the individual who experiences gain or loss as a part of itself, and be glad or sorry as a whole accordingly.'

    [Plato]
    The Republic (Penguin Classics Edition), p.176-7

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