I think most people would say that individuality is a good thing. I would agree. But, individuality and individualism are often confused, and more dangerously, conflated. Individualism and individuality are distinct from each other; and while individuality is beneficial to individual and society at large, individualism is dangerous to both.
Individuality is the natural state of every person that is, has been, or ever will be. It is impossible not to be an individual. A person’s individuality is theirs alone: their mannerisms, experiences, expressions, neurosis, fashions, facial ticks, etc. are all unique (even if imperceptibly so). Our individuality is absolutely democratic. It is impossible to be more or less individual than another; we simply are.
But, and because of this, individuality is also ultimately isolating. We can never truly know another. We have gestures toward who a person is through the external expressions of their individuality, but we can never get inside. That which serves to distinguish each of us from another, also serves to separate. However, while an individual is inherently isolated they are also embedded in a social context, and society is inevitably social.
Individuality poses problems for society most apparently in communication; but because of personal prejudice (benign or extreme), it also elevates, lowers, stereotypes, includes, excludes, etc. each of us in the eyes of others. Most individuals realize that they exist within a social context, and that they must learn to navigate these miscommunications and biases as a matter of survival. Every individual depends upon another individual’s understanding this unwritten code of the social context; just as each individual is dependent upon others for material goods, food, protection, education, companionship, etc. Social existence is thus a central part of what it means to be an individual. For those who recognize and embrace this, individuality is not a problem either for society or individual. They live a symbiotic relationship, each supporting the other.
Let’s assume that this ideal situation exists, that is, that individuals agree to be a part of a given social context, as opposed to being forced. in this situation, all people, by agreeing to live within a society, also tacitly agree to be governed it rules and laws. Under this arrangement it is understood that at times an individual’s desires must be subordinated to the good of the community. Even though this may limit one’s actions or desires, it does not affect anyone’s individuality. This social contract simply governs behaviour; so that as people bump up against each other and their potentially obnoxious individualities, they don’t stab each other. Sometimes community comes first, and the individual second.
Individualism is quite a different sort of beast. It is a theory of being that sets the needs, wants and desires of the individual above those of the community. Individuality and individualism are similar in the sense that both can separate, distinguish, elevate and lower an individual in the eyes of others; but differ in that individualism from the individual’s perspective always does so regardless of consequences to society. The equation here is: individual first, community second. Individualism undermines society by making the good of the social body subservient to the ambition and avarice of an individual. The group is an audience, mere tools, for the achievement of their ambitions.
Many enjoy remarkable freedom to pursue their individual ambitions in the Western world. So much so that I think it has been long since taken for granted and assumed as a right. Even if it is not, I do know that I enjoy this state of affairs. I like nothing better to express my own sense of individuality through the exercise of my abilities. But, I also know that my individuality cannot be elevated to a state of individualism. It is impossible to navigate the world with an ethos of individualism tucked under your belt. ‘Me first’ does not work as an ontology in a world of 7 billion ‘Me’s. The exercise of one’s individuality through the adoption of individualism, undermines the social fabric that makes ‘freedom’ possible.
Individualists, seek, yearn, to be different, singled out, unique…special; without stopping to register that they already are by default. But this isn’t enough. The individualist seeks to become so individuated as to be removed entirely from the warp and woof of social reality. To become a god; and what occurs, abstracted and god-like, is isolation. Isolation not only from others in a physical sense, but in social, psychological and ideological senses as well. When a bunch of people are all radically individuating, what inevitably results is a place full of aggressively isolated individuals competing with each other to be the most individual of all. There is no society, no community, only islands of competing egos.
This issue is particularly pertinent to, and problematic for the arts. For much of the 20th century and and now the 21st, artists and intellectuals have donned the mantle of the commentator and critic of society. They have enjoyed that position, at least as a possibility, ever since the artist became unofficially recognized as capable of being an intellectual in the 17th century. True they have also produced more than their fair share of propaganda, for more or less redeemable causes. But, they have also been a demographic of potential dissonance and demonstration. They have the capacity to point, yell, finger wag and disagree; and, more importantly, are at times listened to when so doing. This makes them dangerous, and en masse, makes them powerful. Artistic state propaganda is effective through solidarity; artistic criticism of anything whatsoever is effective via exactly the same avenue. To separate artists is to diminish their effectiveness and reduce their collective power. Isolation effectively silences them.
So here’s the rub: picking up momentum and influence in earnest in the second half of the 20th century is the value of individuality in the artist and their work (the abstract expressionists of the 1950s and 60s are the most conspicuous examples of this). Confined and restricted by nothing, answerable in theory to no one (except their own theorists), they became (in the minds of at least themselves) a particle of the divine, striding confidently along the surface of both planet and canvas, defying natural, physical and actual law alike. Their work followed suit: it become elevated, mysterious and separate from all else. Works of individuals became aggressive assertions by individualists: “This is the way reality really is!” could be heard from each of their Olympian heights. Damn the torpedoes and damn everyone else as well.
Nobody bothered to wonder who they were preaching to, much less as to the fundamental subtance of their message or the effectiveness of their communication. Each simply concentrated on shouting. Amidst the din other artists were seen as competitors instead of collaborators; and the rest of society was viewed as a motley crew in desperate need of inculturation. But fear not unwashed masses, cultural gifts will be handed down from on high from time to time, courtesy the beneficent hands of artist-gods perched all-knowingly on their mountaintops. And from promontory to promontory, there they sat, created and pontificated. And there they sit still.
The critical voice of the individual artist, so powerful collectively, was silenced in the most clever way of all: they were allowed to shout. But they were led to believe that they should shout alone…and that each of them was right. They could shout all they wanted; and by all means, shout all at once, over one another, at one another, but never with one another. Thousands of separate voices screaming and pleading, crying for change and amendments…but always alone. They still shout, believing that their individuality is untouchable, paramount, precious, and as all things which are perceived to be precious, fragile and in desperate need of protection.
Individualism replaced individuality, or at least was fused with it, and through this fusion was achieved the ultimate impotence of the artistic community. Artists may be admired for their independence (stress on the may), but they certainly are not for the power of their critical voice and ability to affect change. For they have none any longer. No one can hear a single voice in a cacophony. All that is registered is the booming and buzzing of its confusion.
April 4, 2013. Vancouver.