Cindy Sherman, the photographer of shifting identities, was way ahead of the news, as artists usually are. Decades ago, she was photographing herself in stages of transformation, photographing herself as a shapeshifter in the hallways of culture’s identities.
People are fearful in the realms of unmoored identity, but the artists are fearless explorers. They’re always shapeshifting, and doing it as naturally as they breathe. Shapeshifting is the threshold of creativity.
Ask them how they did something amazing, and they say, “I don’t know. It wasn’t me.” “Madame Writer” is now a man, now a woman, now in the bloom in youth, now old, now Latino, now Asian. They almost channel voices from beyond them. Artists are protean by nature. Minor art comes from particular experience. Great art comes when an artist opens to experience beyond his or her own, when he or she is allowed to step into the polyvocal worlds that exist outside the narrow borders of the self.
Artists aren’t a different kind of human. They’re often keener, more perceptive, more open. They are aware of the original part of self that isn’t and can’t be constructed. This part is “not ours,” neutral, objective, part of the divine. In Simone Weil’s terms, “a point of eternity in the soul” can be turned outwards, made attentive, remain open when oriented in the right direction. It requires attention to turn from chaos and noise, and focus outward – not inward. If the post-modern self can gain anything from being loosened from strict identities, it might be this: the flexibility to respond to and participate in moments of transcendence.
This is a way to speak to people’s horror at “emptiness.” “Emptiness” offers us the possibility of creativity, of transcendence, by participating in multi-sidedness of being. As a clever friend says, It would seem to be our soul’s purpose, our birthright in this moment. In those moments, there is profound insight that leads to empathy, understanding of suffering and commonality.