Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Confessions of Self (2010)

My project, The Confessions of Self, is about my wrongdoings that I have wrought throughout my life. Since I introduced this work in the art market, I have received a common question from viewers; what is my psychology of the work, a self-condemnation or a justification? Of course, my intention was to reveal my faults through art to get spiritual freedom from my long-term regrets. To me, however, this question is about my ideas of life, not merely of the work itself. Studying modern philosophy, I have realized that the question might be answered by some philosophical ideas; existentialist humanism and postmodernist anti-humanism. Their ideas are not only contrasting with one another, but also working together to question how I should engage in my life. Both ideas give me some moral relief as well. In these schools, I am particularly interested in Simone de Beauvoir (1908~1986) as Sartrean humanist and Jacques Lacan (1901~1981) as an anti-humanist student of Sigmund Freud (1856~1939).

De Beauvoir, as an influential feminist in history, might accuse me of mistreating women (Image: Abortion, 2010). As one of the most faithful Sartreans, however, she warns me about Bad Faith. If I pretend that I am a Being-in-Itself, which has neither a conscious nor freedom to choose, I have in the Sartrean term, Bad Faith. For de Beauvoir, Bad Faith is rather an illusion because it eventually leads us to disengage in life making excuses; the life in which I do not engage is meaningless to me. De Beauvoir suggests some examples of Bad Faith such as the nihilist, cynic, humorist, adventurer, and spirit of seriousness. [de Beauvoir 1] Sometimes, I felt like a nihilist; my life was meaningless. I used to think like a cynic or humorist; why I should live if I eventually have to die? Also, I struggled to conquer something, like an adventurer, without meaningful purposes. Like illusions in a mirror, my thesis works reflect Bad Faith of my past life. However, if I condemn myself too much, de Beauvoir might count me as the sprit of seriousness that believes the world is readymade and the rules should not be broken. For the Sartrean, moral law is also regarded as Bad Faith because it makes excuses for disengaging in life. In fact, the ideas of existentialist humanism encourage me to be free to choose my own life, build a strong conscious to engage in the life, and never regret the result as long as I respect the same freedom of others. 

In the meantime, Lacan advises me on this problem in some different ways from de Beauvoir. He opposes the humanist recommendation; the conscious Ego should triumph over the unconscious Id. [Lacan 2] As an anti-humanist student of Freud, Lacan believes that the conscious Ego is imaginary, which is falsely reproduced by expectations of society; therefore it must die. What does this idea tell me about? Like other postmodernist thinkers, Lacan rejects the modern subject who knows, who controls, who is transparent to itself, who is distinct from its object, and who is the origin. This conception of human beings, which was developed by the Enlightenment humanists, defines me as a knowing subject, whose major characteristics are rational intellect and individual uniqueness. According to Lacan, however, all these modern notions of the Ego are simplistic illusions; the conscious Ego is not an original self, but mimicry of other sources in a parodic circle. He advises me, that by rejecting these illusions I can better engage the ambiguity of life; in a sense, the wrongdoings represented in my thesis work might also be illusions. Lacan and the postmodern anti-humanist never judge whether I was morally right or wrong; instead, they encourage me NOT to conceal the deep inside the mystery of my life. I understand from the ideas that, as an artist, revealing the otherness in me – in Freudian terms, the unconscious Id – through my art will be one of the best engagements in the mystery of life. To me, the Freudian idea of displacement runs parallel to the Lacan’s advice; a manifested desire through my conscious Ego has been displaced from somewhere else. Although I should not justify the faults I have made in the past, this idea implies my conscious Ego alone is not guilty. By abandoning the imaginary Ego, however, Lacan says that I can be freer to engage in life.

Bridging the key ideas of modernism and postmodernism, Martin Heidegger (1889~1976) redefined art as strife between the world and the earth. [Heidegger 3] Although I never intended such a conflict in my art, I see that an enduring tension in my life shows itself, particularly in my thesis work; no matter if people like it or not, the world tries to reveal a culture or meaning of my life; at the same time, the earth is hiding the mystery of materiality or nature of my life. This strife in my art would be better defined by de Beauvoir’s notion of ambiguity of life; I am subject, yet object for others; I am taking action, yet being interpreted by others. De Beauvoir, therefore, speaks to me more about my fundamental ideas of life, rather than of art; those wrongdoings I have made throughout life were a failure of reciprocity in social relations with others; I should have respected more freedom of others. Unlike de Beauvoir, Lacan speaks to me more about my ideas of art with his notion of mystery of life. I should not have empowered my imaginary Ego in order to allow my unconscious Id to reveal more its mystery through my art. Both thinkers do not conflict on my problem of my life and art. To lessen my suffering as human being, they are cooperating to encourage me to be fully free to choose and engage deeper in the ambiguity and the mystery of life. For the question from viewers, I would like to leave it unanswered, like Charles Ives (1874~1954) did in his atonal music The Unanswered Question (1906), so that my art will drift from one interpretation to another as an ambiguous language of life.


1.    Melchert, Norman. The Great Conversation. New York: Oxford Press. 2007: pp.685-688. Print
2.    Kearney, Richard. The Wake of Imagination. Hutchinson. London. 1988: p.257
3.    Heidegger, Martin. Article: The Origin of the Work of Art. 1960: p.167.

All rights reserved © 2010~2011, Gabe Sheen, San Francisco, CA, USA

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