Are you the artist?

In the first episode of the second season of the American sitcom, Seinfeld, George dishes out some no-nonsense advice to Elaine on how to deal with a person she once exchanged polite hellos with who now ignores her when he sees her. Elaine asks, ‘Really? You would do that?’ and without skipping a beat, George replies, ‘If I was a different person.’

One of the people I once was attended the evening reception of a wedding at which I knew only two guests – my wife and my best friend. The three of us were standing with the bride and groom and someone else I didn’t know when the bride asked me ‘Are you the artist?’ she didn’t wait for my reply, ‘I’m looking for someone to paint a mural in our baby’s bedroom. Could you do that?’ I paused, waited, hesitated, and paused again. Eventually my friend broke the silence, ‘SAY YES.’

We exchanged a couple of perfunctory emails and I never heard from them again. Whatever level of trust they were willing to extend to a friend of a friend had faded away during that glacial time-shift.

What had frozen me that warm summer evening, in the headlights of opportunity, was every artists and many non-artist’s lifelong friend, impostor syndrome; the belief that, despite ample evidence to the contrary, we are not worthy of that commission, their praise, this day-rate. This makes it easy to align confidence with the inauthentic, but I am certain that, however fleeting it may be, an authentic, confident self is possible. It has been sixty years since pre-eminent social-psychologist Irving Goffman made his claim that the only true marker of authenticity is the search for authenticity itself. Through his pioneering dramaturgical analysis, Goffman posited that there can be no essential self; that selfhood is a series of performances, each tailored to the present company and social situation. Props and sets, as Goffman puts it. Authenticity as we know it, then, is a myth.

Which is easier; to ‘be as you wish to seem’ or to find an image with those words on it and share it on social media, where your username probably isn’t your name because someone else has already claimed it?

Goffman would describe the online realm as a further series of stages on which we act out our parts. The selves that we present in places where we seek to build a reputation – where we value the opinion of the other players – these are our idealised selves; the selves that we aspire to be:

“In so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves – the role we are striving to live up to – this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be.”[1]

Objective authenticity can never go any further than the search for itself because it does not exist.

Dog Day Afternoon

If selfhood is a performance, then actors are not the only ones with the opportunity to be someone else from time to time. John Wojtowicz held up a New York bank in 1972, taking hostages live on television before eventually being captured and incarcerated.  Within three years Sidney Lumet had directed a movie adaptation of these events, starring Al Pacino as Wojtowicz. 20 years later, artist Pierre Huyghe made The Third Memory, a film in which Wojtowicz tells his version of events, revealing how he has mixed reality and fiction, to the extent that he now believes that Lumet’s version told the truth where he once insisted it hadn’t.[i]

If I knew what I was doing I would stop today.

One of the people I once was, worked in a call centre where he told everyone that he was an artist, until one workmate showed some interest and asked what I did. I had no answer to that, so I went to art school where every tutor and visiting lecturer that ever spoke to me extolled the virtues of not knowing what they were doing.[ii]

Just be yourself and it’ll all be fine.

What if I don’t know who my self is? Do we all secretly harbour a desire to be someone else or do we sometimes wish that we could fulfil our sense of the person we believe ourselves to be? Did you ever see another artist’s work and wish you’d made it? No? Liar.

Does wanting to be someone else go hand-in-hand with not wanting to be yourself? One of the people I once was wanted to be actor, but somehow fell out of the schoolboy habit of looking silly in front of strangers. I don’t think I ever wanted to be anyone else, but another me might have at least started a band or something. Perhaps it is the actors who have got this sussed. They’re a different person with every new job. Me, I just want a name that doesn’t pull up a million hits on Google.

One of the people I once was called Trevor Smith. The words on a birth certificate said so. Yet, at home he was Hamish – the name his parents had chosen for him but were too embarrassed to commit to paper. ‘Who is Hamish?’ his friends would ask, when his mam called his name. ‘I’m sorry, this is made out to Hamish Smith.’ The bank clerk said, the time I tried to bank a birthday cheque that had been written to my alias, such was it accepted in that half of the family that did not share both of my father’s names.

Do you know how many Trevor Smiths there are in the UK alone? There were two of them in the house I grew up in. Many more, if Goffman is to be believed. And he is. I was once a person in need of a website in a hurry, so decided to add the H of Hamish as a middle initial.

Trevor H. Smith can present work, exhibit, give lectures, artist talks, and more, without the baggage that Trevor Smith brings. That H made everything more plausible; more authentic, even. And when Scott Robertson asked Trevor H. Smith to write this essay, Trevor H. Smith said yes, without hesitation.

[1] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Pelican, 1959, p30


[ii] “If you know (what you are doing) then there’s not really that much of a point in doing it Jonathan Monk Interview: ‘An Original Twist’ 20 Dec 2016

Are you the Artist? was commissioned by Scott Robertson, and published in the booklet for the group show ‘A Double Headed Coin’ at Project78 Gallery, St. Leonard’s on Sea (Sept 2020)