One of the most revealing traits about the modern West is that it fetishizes states of consciousness that come at the beginning and at the end of learning and mastering an art: (1) questioning everything and (2) breaking the rules, especially to express our authentic self (or, we might even say, daemon or “genius”).
It is surely no coincidence that this is occurring at a time in which creativity is in decline in the USA. For, notably, these two states of consciousness have been co-opted into the realm of politics, from the realm of art. Art is creative, chaotic, and rule-breaking by nature but, true to politics, expressions of these states have been standardized, especially in regards to what we must say or believe.
We must believe in questioning society. If we do not question society then we must question ourselves (since there must be something wrong with us). We must not question questioning.
But to exist in a world of mere questioning is to exist in a vacuous space: a hall of mirrors in which everything reflects everything else, but in which there is no person that is really looking at the mirrors or the reflections. There is only a fragment in the fragmentation.
A friend of mine in England told me about an art project that her daughter had to do at high school. The project was to create a “self-portrait.” Her daughter painted her own image. All the other children made collages of brand logos (Nike, Ben & Jerry’s, and so on). There was no self in their self-portraits. Or, rather, each student presented him- or herself merely as a construct of different brands, or associations with different brands.
This doesn’t necessarily indicate mere crass consumerism or capitalism on the part of the students. Brands aren’t just commodities. They are ideals. And, frequently, brands absorb political causes (as well as trends, such as wellness) as part of their marketing. They stand for something. But the question is, do we?
Notably, “gender expression,” for example, is no longer the purview of the wildly creative — Boy George, David Bowie, Leigh Bowery, Quentin Crisp, New Romantics, Goths, New York’s Club Kids — nor of their imitator and fans. Rather, it has been absorbed into the branding of Citi bank, IBM, and Unilever subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s, among others — which, personally, I find less inspiring.
In the arts, between questioning everything and expressing the authentic self, or genius, there are many years of conscious practice. There is commitment to something. There is a commitment to becoming something or, rather, to becoming someone.
As Quentin Crisp himself once said, “You have to polish up your raw identity into something called a life style, so that you can barter with the outside world for what you want.”
But in an age in which human beings are increasingly viewed as interchangeable, what we are each individually committed to becomes a problem since it means that we will stand out from the crowd. As such, our lifestyle must be either be standardized or presented as questionable and flushed down the cultural toilet.
Or to put it another way, in an increasingly vacuous society, for conformists, the solution is to de-emphasize lifestyle and to emphasize identity; to de-emphasize the individual genius and to fetishize the questioning (to which we are all able to respond with the usual stock answers), presenting the act of questioning itself not as the work of amateur but as the inclination of the remarkably clever.
It is easy to question. In the arts, questioning everything is the beginning stage. But, today, it is also easy to come across intelligent people who present stage as a life-long pursuit. For them, questioning society’s traditional opinions and assumptions about sexuality, male-female relationships, “the body,” religion, and so on, is a “radical” act.
But, it’s not. Mostly, it’s quite boring. We’ve been questioning everything in the West for centuries — in art, in philosophy, in religion, in science, and so on. But, if we leave all of that aside, and think only about youth culture, we’ve been questioning everything from at least the 1950s (before nearly all of us were born).
Most people naturally go through a stage of questioning authority in their teens. (Having already discovered Punk, at fourteen, a friend of mine shaved my head into a “Mohawk” haircut. By the age of fifteen, I had discovered Goth and was occurring up my clothes, painting on them, and being constantly heckled by passersby. At sixteen, I discovered neopaganism. By seventeen, I had grown my hair halfway down my back, was painting, and was active in a neopagan group. At eighteen — having been going to them for four years — I was sick of nightclubs.)
Teenage rebellion is usually accompanied by experimentation in sex, drugs, art, fashion, or participating in some obscure activity — playing in a punk band, skateboarding, or practicing neopaganism (yes, neopaganism was once obscure).
The rebellious teenager has, traditionally, done something: he ripped his jeans (now you buy them with designer rips), he made his own clothes or painted symbols and slogans on them, played the guitar, or moved into a squat. He did something. He stood out instead of blending in.
In contrast, the comfortably-off, middle manager with an apartment on Park Slope is able to feel radical because he postures as someone who questions society (even as he seems to live a rather conservative life, sending his overly-protected child to an elite and rather ethnically homogenous school, for example). And, perhaps, most importantly in this time of atomization, such individuals are able to bond with other upper-middle-class individuals over brunch by talking about how much they detest those who won’t question society (but whom, they sense, must be questioning them).
Like the belief in an afterlife, accepted by almost everyone a century or so ago, belief in continually questioning society helps us to conform to each other, seeing each other not as individuals with different lifestyles and beliefs but as people with empty but equivalent identities. You might be a record-breaking mountaineer, a star athlete, an artist, someone living off the grid, or a Wall Street trader. But what matters is not your lifestyle; it is your identity. What you do is irrelevant today.
Undoubtedly, to become something — to embody our true nature and inclinations — is difficult and takes time: years, maybe decades. It is also a frightening prospect. Those who have stood out, traditionally, have found themselves being threatened, attacked, denounced, lied about, and gossiped about. Doubtlessly — if social media is any indication — it is the same today and, perhaps, will always be.
The process of becoming an individual begins not when I fixate on other people, or on society, but when I examine myself. It is not, for example, in questioning society’s preferred sexuality but in being attracted to someone else that I discover my sexuality. And, again, I can be certain that I think differently to the mainstream not when Citi bank says the same thing as me but when it does not.
Society’s questioning of society is not authentic questioning, of course. The aim is not to find different answers but to strip away of pesky, authentic individuality and, thus, to create a population that conforms while thinking that it is rebelling. Society’s questioning of society is easily incorporated into ad campaigns, promotions, and corporate statements. In most cases, it is not sincere.
Conforming might be essential for the stability of societies. But the West, as it has discovered, has a problem in this regard. The twentieth century (which, of course, only ended two decades ago), saw World War I and II (mostly played out in the heart of Europe), the emergence and collapse of totalitarian regimes (in Europe and elsewhere), the first experiments with LSD (and the promotion of psychedelics by American author Timothy Leary), the invention of female contraception, Elvis, the Beatniks, Hippies, the Warhol Factory, the influx of Eastern spirituality, movements such as the Process Church, Bruce Lee movies, Hip Hop and break dance, and the invention of the teenager.
This strange mix facilitated questioning, rebellion, free expression, the creation of new cultures (generally youth cultures), and the emergence of a few truly different-thinking individuals and creative personalities (among a large mass of conformists).
It is possible that the radicalism of the Beatniks, Hippies, David Bowie, and Leigh Bowery, among many others, seeped into politics because it lost steam in the culture — partly as a result of Chinese factories making once inaccessible products (including fashion) widely available in the West, partly as a result of the fine arts exhausting themselves with Picasso and Abstract Expressionism, and partly as music creators started to focus on producing hits rather than experimenting with new sounds.
But it might also be that politics, for all of its embrace of what it perceives as equivalent identities, is a movement against lifestyle, creativity, and true individuality (witness the constant attacks on creators and celebrities on social media and in the mainstream media). Contemporary politics — adopted by giant corporations for their marketing — might, in other words, represent the revenge of the bourgeois (who wish to see themselves as rebels even as they conform) on the actual free-thinkers of our society.
It is easy to get sucked into politics, wasting hours arguing on social media with people who have no intention of listening to anything you say. It is easy to fixate on our identity, becoming angry if some corporate giant doesn’t reflect our protest against “the system” in their marketing. But, as Crisp said, identity is not enough.
The resistance to cultural dumbing down, homogeneity, and limits on what we can think and do will not come from our identities but from our lifestyles and from the cultures — or subcultures — that we create as a result of coming together with other people with similar lifestyles.
I encourage you to move out of the stage of questioning everything and into the stage of doing, and of being, something: paint, write, compose music, find clothing that reflects who you are and wear it, work out and get fitter, learn a martial art, appreciate culture, visit museums and find inspiration in the artistic movements of the past, read more, and contemplate more.
Becoming ourselves takes time, commitment, risk, sweat, and facing our fears. That is why most people prefer the cheap but easy pose of questioning everything. Be different. Instead of living as a question mark, live as a “yes” to life.