How art shapes identity

We all know the stereotypes: the hip-hop-listening, baggy-clothes-wearing urbanite with liberal values; the truck-driving, country-music-listening conservative; the acoustic-praise-music-listening evangelical with Kinkade covered walls.

The arts (by this I am referring to all types of art—visual, film, music, design, fashion) are just as much about personal identity as they are about the expression of sights and sounds. The counterculture movement of the early 1990s held ideas fixed with a musical identity, just as the folk movement of the 1960s was just as much about ideas as it was about music. We don't just listen or watch because of appealing sights and sounds. We identify with the ideas.

We negotiate our own identity with the art we consume. The music we listen to, the art we admire, the way we decorate, the films we view—these all reflect who we are. They are what express our identity. People even claim they can tell as much about a person from their iPod playlists as from psychological tests—remember the reports of President Bush's iPod last year?

These stereotyped identities have not always been culturally entrenched. At one point they were artistic practices and ideas that were on the fringes, created by artists who did not resonate with established identities. Only through popular consumption did their art take on a static or stereotypic identity.

Creative artists do not live in this static state; they are still on the fringes,
responding to our ever changing world. Like Bob Dylan said 40 years ago, “the times they are a changin'.” They were then and are now, and we cannot cling to the typical.

Examples of this are all around us. The transitory nature of cities is resulting in an ever-changing mixture of cultural practices. White suburbanites are buying more hip-hop music than anyone else. The Lower Mainland is becoming increasingly influenced by the music popularized through Bollywood films.

Combined with the increase of global anxiety of terrorism and conflict, this has caused many to call into question these identities once thought to be concrete. Artists are again asking questions about individual and collective identity.

An upcoming conference at Trinity Western University, whose topic is “(Be)longing: Art and Identity in an Age of Anxiety,” brings together artists and arts scholars who are asking these questions.

Keynote speaker Adam Krims, from the University of Nottingham, U.K., is speaking on the “urban ethos,” a term he has coined to describe the identity of cities that came through popular music and film,. More than 30 presenters from all over the world will be sharing about the struggles toward and away from identity in this era of anxiety and migrant cultures.

These concepts reveal that identity is never static. It is fluid. More changes than stays the same. In times of turbulent cultural shift, the way we understand ourselves and those around us is called into question. When we see identity as static, we paint people with stereotypes and do not see them for who they are. Art is one way to challenge static notions of identity by engaging the viewer in narratives that are unfamiliar to them, and that challenge their previously held notions.

For more information on the Verge Arts Series Conference, May 4 to 7, visit Contact or 604.888.7511 x3573 for comments or questions.

Last Updated: 2007-10-11
Author: Erin Mussolum