Saturday, April 26, 2008

The "Self" is our Principal Burden

I've been reading Richard Sennett's book, "The Fall of Public Man," (Alfred A Knopf, 1977.) (The book was included in one of the course syllabi of Anthony Raynsford, the architectural historian who will be joining SJSU in the Fall.) This paragraph seemed to address one of the chief problems I have faced for many years as an art professor: the deep-seated belief among students and others that the sole purpose of art is to "express" the "inner psyche" of its maker, rather than to find and interpret interesting relationships among the objects and ideas of the world through which the artist navigates. Sennett writes:

Few people today would claim that their psychic life arises by spontaneous generation, independent of social conditions and environmental influences. Nevertheless, the psyche is treated as though it had an inner life of its own. This psychic life is seen as so precious and so delicate that it will wither if exposed to the harsh realities of the social world, and will flower only to the extent that it is protected and isolated. Each person's self has become his principal burden; to know oneself has become an end, instead of a means through which one knows the world. And precisely because we are so self-absorbed, it is extremely difficult for us to arrive at a private principle, to give any clear account to ourselves or to others of what our personalities are. The reason is that, the more privatized the psyche, the less it is stimulated, and the more difficult it is for us to feel or to express feeling.

And later, he continues:

Masses of people are concerned with their single life-histories and particular emotions as never; this concern has proved to be a trap rather than a liberation.

The search for a new "category" other than "art", from my prior post, could perhaps involve the prerequisite that the new thing not be about "self-expression".

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