Interview in Parachute: Art and Self-Fashioning"

Richard Shusterman is Chair of Philosophy at Temple University in Philadelphia and is Directeur de programme at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. He has published numerous books, including Pragmatist Æsthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (1992), L'art à l'état vif: La pensée pragmatiste et l'esthétique populaire (1992), Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and the Philosophical Life (1997) and Performing Live: Æsthetic Alternatives for the Ends of Art (2001), which, in its study of popular culture and lifestyles, radically redefines the fields of philosophy and æsthetics. Shusterman has edited Bourdieu: A Critical Reader (1999).

In your most recent book, Performing Live, you further your exploration of contemporary redefinitions of art and æsthetics. You propose an alternative reading of the relationship between the so-called "fine arts" and "popular culture" in modernity. Could you elaborate on this relationship? The book's argument is that the perceived crisis in art at the so-called end of modernity and "end of art" is not as grave a threat to the potential of artistic expression as the historicist theory of art leads many to believe. The historicist thesis is that the concept of art is a particular product of Western modernity that began to emerge in the eighteenth century when the various practices of poetry, painting, music, sculpture, etc. were grouped together as fine art and began to gain more autonomy. As patronage further declined in the nineteenth century, the artist was prompted to intensify the strategies and ideology of art's autonomy, insisting on the idea that art was the autonomous product of genius an d should not be subordinated to the demands of the people who bought or commissioned artworks. By the end of the nineteenth century - with the rise of art for art's sake - the autonomy paradigm continued to develop until art seemed to become its own central subject, art as an expressive, creative inquiry into what art really is. Given this genealogy, the argument can be made: if we've reached the end of modernity and art is a product of modernity, then it's likely that we've reached the end of art. That thesis has been proposed in different ways by Walter Benjamin, Gianni Vattimo and Arthur Danto. My book argues that if we look to dimensions of artistic practices that exist before modernity and beyond Western culture, if we actually look back to the natur al roots and energies that produce various art practices, then we're not compelled to identify art with modernity and therefore not forced to identify the end of modernity with the end of art. Instead, I maintain that artistic energies and creativity that seem to be part of human nature because they seem to be found in virtually all cultures, have now - in the so-called postmodern period - been increasingly directed into two artistic fields outside the realm of autonomous high art: the arts of popular culture and of self-fashioning.

There is considerable artistic power in popular arts and commercial arts, in film, videos, advertising graphics, popular music, television, etc. All these are sites of vibrant, exciting, creative activity - including the invention of new genres. I was interested in rap music because it seemed to be a whole new genre. It wasn't just an application of some new material to some existing form. So the idea of art as being the creation of heightened experience through attention to form and content and the innovation of styles and genres can also be found in the domain of commercial and popular art. Artistic creativity has also been channeled to what I call the arts of self-fashioning, which, for me, includes fashion. Jean-Paul Gaultier, as far as I'm concerned, is an artist. So when people see a particular crisis in what's called the area of au-tonomous art or high art, it doesn't really mean that our artistic energies have disappeared or that something deep has been lost in the human soul or the spirit. There's remarkable evidence of the same creative energies that engendered what we now call autonomous art, it's simply directed more into other areas.

Modern art has acknowledged the importance of popular and commercial culture - at times in critical ways, but often with much admiration.

Autonomous art in fact realizes this, which is why much contemporary visual art appropriates popular culture, just as the Impressionists did when they painted scenes from Parisian nightlife. Warhol started as a commercial artist and most of his topoi were borrowed from the world of commercial art and popular arts. We could also think of Cindy Sherman's untitled film stills, Jeff Koons' appropriations of popular culture, etc. There is clear recognition within the artworld that energies exist in popular culture that can help fuel fine art. So rather than seeking a precise definition of fine art that rigidly distinguishes it from other æsthetic practices (a common but futilely scholastic enterprise of many contemporary Anglo-American philosophers of art), it's more important for me to highlight the continuities between fine art and other artistic activities. The arts of self-fashioning are equally influential in contemporary art. We can find their traces in the many artworks of transformative photographic self-portraits (e.g., Cindy Sherman or Mariko Mori), and also in more radical body art: Chris Burden's early work based on body mutilation or the risk thereof; Vito Acconci's self-biting Trademarks; Hannah Wilke's self-exposing nude posings; and Orlan has devoted her œuvre to cosmetic surgery on herself. Then there is performance art (e.g., Marina Abra-movic) that is very much connected with the idea of somatic discipline where the artist works on and with body endurance. Besides all this, self-fashioning is also evident in the fact that artists nowadays are often less interested in making objects or creating æsthetic experiences than in creating identities, particularly their own identity as an artist. They have to distinguish themselves; they need to make them-selves almost like a commercial brand name. The prime artistic job is to create an artistic persona replete with a special style and image. The creation of this persona becomes the main œuvre, the artist's self as a Gesamtkunstwerk. Joseph Beuys is a paradigm here: his work seems inseparable from who he was, and so whatever he did - whether established art objects like drawings or seemingly non-art actions (like car rying rocks) - if he engaged and viewed it as somehow part of his artistic process, it became an artwork, a manifestation of the artist working. So, to sum up, my book underlines how popular art and the arts of self-fashioning both feed back into contemporary art and also provide æsthetic alter-natives outside the constraining formal white cube of gallery space.

Among the various practices of self-fashioning, you make a distinction between what you call "representational" practices, which are concerned with beautifying our external forms, and "experiential" practices, which are more concerned with making us feel better.

Yes, it's an important distinction in the field I call somæsthetics. Preoccupation with mere representational forms blinds us to the æsthetic potential of proprioceptive "inner" body feelings. Experiential somæsthetic disciplines can make us feel better in two different senses - to provide better, more satisfying feelings but also to feel our bodies better in the sense of more acute and accurate perception of their activity or movement. But though the distinction is important, the representational and experiential modes are related. How you look and how you feel are often closely connected. When you're depressed you usually look it, and if you know you're looking bad, you can get even more depressed. Similarly, experientially oriented somatic practices like yoga often use representational devices as means to their experiential ends, urging us to focus our at-tention on the tip of our nose or our navel. Though I tend to emphasize the experiential disciplines in Performing Live, I recognize the value of work on body representations and surfaces. I have an æsthetician's respect for surfaces; we perceive through our sense organs which belong to our bodily surface, and even our insides are surfaces or sides that are folded in. I resist the philosopher's obsessively one-sided privileging of depth and interiority. Of course, I also respect depth (and not just as the com-plement of surface), but I think that in questing for depth in art we too often lose sense of the surface. Contemporary æsthetic theory has made excellent progress in going beneath the æsthetic surface to see the deeper social and intellectual structures that makes art's creation and perception possible, rather than understanding art simply in terms of sensory qualities and experiential immediacy as was the prior tendency in æsthetics. But the new preoc-cupation with depth and sociohistorical context has meant a gross devaluation of æsthetic experience and sensuousness. So my work tries to restore the balance by defending æsthetic experience, sensual immediacy, and nondiscursive understanding (e.g., not only in Performing Live but in previous works like Sous l'interprétation and La fin de l'expérience ésthetique, Pragmatist Æsthetics (L'art à l'état vif) and in a new book which I call Surface and Depth).

Why do you think there is this tendency against surface and toward depth?

I suspect three reasons. One is the exciting dynamic of unmasking, so once you go beneath a layer of meaning, you want to go still deeper, you don't want to come back to the surface. Then there is the old philosophical desire to find some deep ultimate truth that is defined by contrast with surface appearances. Third is a kind of puritanic intellectual satisfaction in renunciating the enjoyment of the senses.

In many of these practices, there is often a kind of tension between two ideals of self-fashioning. One is close to the ideal of authenticity: self-fashioning is understood as a process of self-discovery and self-expression. But there is another ideal which is completely different, an ideal of self-creation, of total self-creation.

Since I do not believe in a fixed, predetermined self that one can discover and be true to, I think self-fashioning can never be the discovery of one's self that was always already there before our human efforts begin to fashion it. For me the interesting form of authentic self-expression does not mean just doing what one already does or discovering and being faithful to one's prior "true self" but rather working creatively with talents, qualities, experiences and desires that one can find and acquire for oneself in order to enrich one's life and network of relationships. The self is always a construction of work in progress.

Paradoxically, this ideal of self-creation is sustained in both specialized and popular culture, in academia as well as in advertising. But of course self-creation is largely a fantasy.

I could say paradoxically that self-creation is both inevitable and impossible. It's inevitable because who you are is a function of what you do; so assuming that we have choices, our choices help make us who we are; and since we must make choices, we have to make who we are. On the other hand, self-creation seems impossible because it can never be self-creation ex nihilo. The self you have to work with in self-creation is made of things you didn't create but were given or done to you. Your very self-image is learned only through communication with others with whom you identify and from whom you distinguish yourself: first your family and then larger social groups to which you belong. The self is largely a bundle of habits of action, feeling and thought that are learned and incorporated through social training. They are so deeply ingrained in your body-mind that you don't realize they are structuring your behavior, thought and desire. (Experiential somæsthetic disciplines like the Feldenkrais Method can help you become aware of such psychosomatic habits so that you can eventually improve them to some extent.) But nonetheless we remain significantly limited in the materials of self-construction that our society affords us; so that the premise of advertising that we can make ourselves into anything (typically by buying the right equipment and professional services) is indeed a consumerist fantasy. Besides, the actual lifestyles that are advertised as exemplary seem rather limited and preprogrammed to advance certain commodities of consumption. This marketing influence is why, I think, representational somæsthetics is far more prevalent in our society than the experiential disciplines.

Advertising tries to instill certain behaviors through identification. But art works in a completely different way. It often resists identification and the stabilization of the self.

One of the prominent romantic conceptions of art is its mysterious inexhaustibility, its resistance to paraphrase and reduction to a formula. But this doesn't mean that we can never identify a dominant meaning or message in art. Art has often advocated particular ideals or models, from religious and courtly art through Bloomsbury; and such preferred models of life can sometimes be discerned even in the fluid, open, elusive or meaning-critical styles of Dada and Fluxus, or in Pop art. What art typically does, however, is include a critical, reflective perspective on the ideals it presents, which advertising very rarely does. Art, of course, also advertises certain lifestyles through the glorification of the lives of artists and also sometimes of art connoisseurs.

Do you think that this concern with lifestyles is something more accentuated in present-day living?

We are probably more conscious of it today. But I think people have always had a tendency to stylize their lives as a natural extension of human expressiveness. Once you get beyond the bare necessities of life, you want to give it meaning by stylizing it in certain ways - through ritual, play, decoration, etc. Art can be seen as developing out of processes of play, ritual, decoration, stylization and communication, developing into ever more conscious and specialist modes. If people were always in some way concerned with stylizing their lives, modern times has distinctively emphasized the idea of stylization as the individual's choice of taste. Your class, family, profession or gender should not simply determine your style of life. Each individual has to choose her own æsthetic solution for living, and advertising responds to this call for choice. Here we need to remember that some people aren't primarily interested in an æsthetic of constant innovation and becoming. Indeed, I don't think art's prime pur-pose, historically speaking, has been innovation. The conflation of art with constant, radical innovation is a myth of modernity that is also connected with capitalism's incessant need for new products and new ideas to constantly insure new profits; hence we have a systematic reproduction of the new. Of course, art is a valuable source of innovation and creativity, but there are other values in art that are too often forgotten because we are so obsessed with the idea of becoming, of perpetual, radical innovation.

But, with this emphasis on self-styling, isn't there a risk of reducing the public sphere of politics, of polit-ical choices, to the private sphere, to simple choices about your own body, your self, etc.?

One of the ways I develop the idea of self-styling is by insisting on the necessary and enriching social dimension of the self. As noted earlier, there is no substantive self without society, and the more the self is informed by the social network of shared meanings, the richer and more distinctive the self will be and the more its individuality can be meaningful and productive. Performing Live outlines a model of self-fashioning in which the self is more engaged with and open to others, including other cultures. Self-fashioning can be pursued not as an isolated monad but by creating supportive relations with others. So you work on developing these relationships, and your self-enrichment and fulfillment comes as a byproduct of this work. This is different from the attitude of focusing narrowly on the self and simply using others as tools or means for self-fulfillment. Much of the literature of self-fashioning suffers and offends by taking this myopically egoistical approach. There are reasons for this tendency that go far beyond contemporary art and philosophy, and that stem from the ideology of liberal, self-sufficient individualism. The idea of the individual as an autonomous contractual agent in economic exchange and commodity consumption clearly strengthens the focus on the individual self that nourishes the artistic ideas of autofiction and æsthetic self-fashioning.

What relationships do you establish between self-fashioning and the representations of the self?

Self-representation is always part of self-fashioning and autofiction is in some sense inevitable. To fashion oneself implies having some image of what one is and what one wants to become. Efforts of self-criticism involve representing the self as an object for criticism. But when one tries to understand oneself through self-representation, one cannot help but do so in terms of a continuing narrative, since one can't know the real meaning of any action or event or feature in one's self or life without presuming a larger whole in which that element plays a role. Any part or act of the self can have a different meaning in terms of a different hermeneutic whole or story in which the particular element is embedded. But we don't yet know the future of our lives, so the hermeneutic whole in which any present feature or action of the self is represented must be filled in by an act of imaginative presumption, however vague, of how the story will be continued. So your representation of yourself, no matter how honest you are, always has this dimension of fictionality built into it. Your self is constructed and the construction involves an elusive temporality that surprisingly goes backwards as well as forwards. Not only don't you know the future, but you can't always remember the past in an adequately full sense. Thus, also in representing our past selves, we always fictively reconstruct some of our past that we no longer properly remember. We sometimes even notice, when we tell a story about our self, that things get changed in our narrative, we remember them differently. So the self, which is this compilation of all these representations (of past, present and presumed future) is a product of all this kind of imaginative elaboration of all these things that are not yet properly defined for the future or remembered from the past. Part of the power of visual images and literary representations is that they give a substantive form to ideas and feelings that we're either not aware of or don't yet have. Such representations become a focus for these ideas and feelings to become explicit and active in us and thus change who we are. The practices of art, including the art of writing philosophy, are thus powerful tools for transforming the self. Art and writing can change who we are.

Representations may be a means of self-fashioning for the artist. But how do they contribute to the fash-ioning of the spectator? Philosophers and artists have often served as models - to identify with, to imitate.

Though today's most obvious models for imitation are, unfortunately, the celebrities of entertainment and sports, I think philosophers and artists have been exemplary figures in our society, and their roles have been historically connected. As I explain in Practicing Philosophy, ancient philosophers (even Socrates) seemed to model themselves on the heroes of Greek literature, and they were in stark competition with the poets. Conversely, artists later modeled themselves on philosophers by seeing themselves as dedicated to the quest for new truth, original ideas and the critique of society. Artists thus borrowed the philosophical image as a rebel or social pariah (like Socrates or Spinoza), be-cause their quest for truth set them against society's dogmas. But the interesting question about philosophical or artistic exemplarity is how we understand and respond to it. Do we just copy exemplars by faithfully imitating all their behaviour, language, etc.? Exemplarity doesn't have to mean that. The interesting idea in philosophical and artistic exemplarity is that artists and philosophers look to their exemplars in order to fashion their own special, creative way of being a self, not to slavishly copy the work of their exemplars. In art and philosophy, if you want to follow an admired exemplar, you can't do exactly what they did, because their true example isn't just what they did, it's what was meant or involved in what they did as a creative project of fashioning new work and a particular, creative, expressive self. But to do that, one can't do exactly what one's exemplars did by copying them, because by definition you wouldn't be doing anything creative, original or expressive of your own personality; you would just be blindly following a formula. In the representations of exemplary lives, the danger is to allow these lives to be fetishised in terms of specific details without people understanding that their exemplarity lies in their search to express the artist's or philosopher's own specific vision of the world, of the things that they found especially and personally relevant, and to work out a solution to life's puzzle in their own way with the materials they had. So I think exemplarity is very dangerous if it is taken as a law or as a formula. But perhaps part of exemplarity in philosophy and art is to be honest and open, in questioning and in searching.

But the exemplariness we are given in art is often fragmentary and shows itself as fragmentary, whereas the kind of exemplariness promoted by fashion or entertainment is generally quite unidirectional and totalizing in its structure, which does not leave much to imagine.

I think this is true for modern art and modern philosophy, but not always in the ancient world. Some of the ancient schools of philosophy that stressed practice as well as theory (e.g., stoicism, epicureanism and cynicism) often tried to provide a global and detailed vision of what the good life should be, recommending that one live by a particular arche or founding principle, and that limitation was something good in life. The Greeks appreciated the æsthetic value of limits for harmony and order. Of course, there could always be some differences of interpretation in applying the global lifestyle or leading principle to concrete specifics of life. Still, in ancient philosophy, exemplarity was closer to advertising than the exemplarity of the more contemporary philosopher or contemporary artist would be. Contemporary thought recognizes the self as a product of change and reconstruction, so the idea of a fixed life-principle or fixed totalizing formula for the self is no longer taken very seriously in philosophy: one has to think for oneself, and do so continuously and critically. The idea of some ancient philosophical schools that one should propose a global, detailed way of life with fixed ends and methods was later taken up by religions. Here a specific detailed pattern was proposed that one was told to stick to in order to achieve a good life. You pray, you go to church or the mosque every day, you perform certain rituals, sacraments, fasts, pilgrimages, etc. It's a very fixed, prescribed lifestyle, not unlike the prepackaged prescriptions of lifestyles in today's advertising. Perhaps advertising is a remnant of a lost religious world picture - a source of answers (however false they may be) to questions that philosophy and art and science have abandoned but that still persistently interest us and call for answers. Of course, advertising's images of heaven and hell and the good life relate to this worldly life and not an afterlife; but perhaps when the baby boomers get still older, the advertised images of earthly paradise will be less sex and drugs and rock'n'roll, and more like some plush retirement condo in Boca Raton.

So what is art's role today?

I don't think art does one particular thing. Art's fragmentation or diversity is not, to my mind, a bad thing. Some culture critics still expect high art to be the primary if not sole place where all the important artistic progress is made and creativity is nurtured and expressed. But I think this is no longer true; nor is it something to lament. I have a broad conception of art that includes the arts of popular culture and self-fashioning; and these different artistic practices are doing too many things in too many different directions to try to summarize. Even if you take the idea of bodily self-fashioning, you have the more or less conventional arts of bodybuilding, makeup, fashion, tattoos and piercings, but also more transgressive experiments in body æsthetics like branding and burning. If some of these practices aim at beauty, others have other artistic aims of expression. So I don't want to say what art's current role is, as if art is one coherent thing with an implicit agenda or agency. This is even a danger when one is tempted to give such flexibly open answers as "art is exploring its diverse options or looking for what it should do."

And philosophy?

The field of contemporary philosophy is also very diverse and lacks a single centre. Many philosophers in the Anglo-American mainstream do not read in contemporary continental philosophy and vice versa, so each group often presumes that there is one philosophical centre by disregarding its rival. I do not have that luxury. Due to my Oxford education in philosophy and the experience of teaching in France and Germany, my philosophical self has been constructed by both approaches, and I try to combine what I see as most useful in them. But they often remain very different languages, and I recognize my philosophical self as a problematic métissage, suspicious to purists from both traditions. Besides this plurality of contemporary philosophical traditions, there is a further, more basic plurality. Philosophy can be practiced simply as an academic pursuit of theory, but it can also be practiced as an art of living. Here again, I try to combine both practices (as was common in ancient times). I write academic books and articles, but I also see my philo-sophical work in terms of an æsthetic project of em-bodied life, a Gesamtkunstwerk of engaged living in a wider social world beyond the borders of my skin and professional philosophy. I don't only write about somæsthetics, I practice it. I am a certified practitioner of Feldenkrais Method, a form of somatic education and therapy that develops a better awareness of our sensorimotor system and motor intentionality. It has improved my life and thinking in many ways, and I hope my Feldenkrais students derive similar benefits, which are as much æsthetic as cognitive and practical.

But let me return more generally to the question of philosophy as an art of living. A philosopher's life and œuvre can be conceived, lived and assessed in terms of the way we evaluate artworks. We can appreciate its harmony, dynamics, beauty, originality, structure, development. One notices if the philosopher's work becomes merely repetitive or whether it evolves in new, perhaps dramatically different but still coherent ways. (One thinks here of early and later Wittgenstein or early and later Heidegger or even early and later Foucault.) In the project of philosophy as a self-critical, self-perfecting, self-fashioning art of living, one is at the same time both creating an œuvre and struggling to formulate and defend the criteria by which that œuvre will be evaluated. But this is also true for great poet-critic-theorists like T.S. Eliot or great painter-theorists. I'll leave you and your readers the privilege of filling in your own favourite artistic exemplars in order to make this point more vivid or appealing. One understands things better when one learns them through one's own efforts of thinking and disco very. An interview should leave some questions for its readers to answer.


Chantal Pontbriand is the editor-in-chief of the journal Parachute and director of the Festival International de Nouvelle Danse. She has published Fragments critiques (1978-1998) at Éditions Jacqueline Chambon (France, 1998) and Communauté et Gestes at Éditions Parachute (2000).

Olivier Asselin is a professor of Art History at Concordia University. He works in particular on eighteenth-century æsthetics and contemporary art. He has contributed to a number of journals (Parachute, Trois, La recherche photographique, Protée, Public) and has directed films and videos: La liberté d'une statue (1990), Le siège de l'åme (1997) and Maîtres anciens (1997).

Richard Shusterman redéfinit la relation entre l'art des grandes galeries et l'art populaire (télévision, graphisme) dans l'ère moderne. Il apparente l'auto-créa-tion artistique ou philosophique modernes à la créa-tion de marques, dont la prémisse est que le consom-mateur, en se dotant de choses et d'expérien-ces, peut devenir ce qu'il veut. Cette autocréation - cette construction d'une Gesamtkunstwerk, une œuvre du soi - qu'il nomme "somaesthétique" peut être "représentationnelle", quand il s'agit d'embellisse-ment de l'individu, ou "expérientielle", quand il s'agit de son bien-être. Shusterman ne croit pas que l'attention que l'individu porte à son style réduise la sphère politique; l'individu plutôt se définit par rapport à un réseau social, cadre de son autocréation et de son autocritique.

Edited for web by R. J. Magyar.

Transcribed by Lee Bayes.
Edited by Olivier Asselin and Peter Gallo.
The interviewers would like to thank Jean Klucinskas, who made this interview possible.