Hume’s Personal Identity
Probably starting from Impressionism, the originality and individuality of artists became crucially important for their success. The dexterity of fingers and mastery of the craft were no longer enough, and artists had to delve deep into their inner world to find their originality and something peculiar that would distinguish them from the others. The issue of artist’s identity became more important. The pursuits of their identity allowed them to discover their own artistic style and a special manner of work. The problem is that such discovery of self could give a false understanding that identity is something stable, something that can explain an individual that discovered it. However, David Hume argues that the identity is, in fact, a lifelong process of change; thereafter, if people posit that they know themselves and their self is stable, it is a false understanding of human personality or people lie to themselves and talk about something that does not really exist. In this regard, there are artists such as Richard Pousette-Dart and Constantin Brancusi who were never satisfied with any labels and findings of their identity and continued their artistic way without sticking to the same tried self, showing a wide variety of identities and artistic directions.
In “A Treatise of Human Nature,” David Hume has a section on personal identity where he argues that there is no whole ‘self’ within an individual’s personality that could be found once and for all. For Hume, personal identity cannot be glimpsed in its wholeness because it is made of perceptions. People tend to believe that they have a certain core or a centre of their personality that remains unchanged, or they pursue their identity thinking that once they find it, their search will be complete. However, according to Hume, one cannot acquire this knowledge since it is only with the help of memory that people remember situations and experiences they had, while there is no evidence for the fact that there is some core of personal identity. For Hume, the person’s subjectivity prevents one from understanding their real self; therefore, it is impossible to see it. It does not mean that people do not have their own identity. Hume rather focuses on the fact that people get ideas about their selves from impressions and perceptions the nature of which is not stable. In this regard, it is more important to record the way people think of themselves under the influence of these perceptions. Overall, Hume concludes, “Identity depends on the relations of ideas; and these relations produce identity, by means of that easy transition they occasion” (Hume 1911, p. 245). Thus, different perceptions can transform personal identity, which even though the transition between stages and associations can be of different strength and coherence.
Evidently, a question of identity is an essential one, and Hume argues that it can be tackled in the same way he does with the identity of animals, plants, and objects. Even though people tend to think that they as well as objects and animals remain the same, in fact everything in the world is changing. For instance, an acorn becomes an oak tree, whereas a ship or a building changes many of its elements due to repairs, but still are believed to remain the same ship and building. It shows that an entity has changed, while its self remained, “Identity is nothing really belonging to these different perceptions, and uniting them together, but is merely a quality which we attribute to them, because of the union of their ideas in the imagination when we reflect upon them” (Hume 1911, p. 246). Memory is an important part of personal identity because without or with insufficient memory, an individual has troubles in establishing one’s identity (Hume 1911, p. 248). Without taking perceptions into considerations, Hume says it is as if an individual is completely “annihilated” (1911, p. 239). However, humans, as Hume argues, comprise perceptions; thus, since perceptions change all the time, personal identity must alter too. Basically, Hume argues that when people’s thoughts and emotions change, they transform as well. Therefore, it is difficult to talk about personal identity as of something stable. Rather personal identity is changing all the time, and an individual is never invariable.
Romania-born and Paris-based Constantin Brancusi was characterised by a strong personal style with elements, motifs, and techniques that were initiated by him and further continued to be used in the work of other sculptors. When he first came to France and became a student of August Rodin, he discovered that it was not a way to his identity. Working in the shadow of a great master is stifling for his self, and he must abandon academic background. Brancusi used conflicting ideas in his artistic life, namely “Art is life itself” and “Art is the transfiguration of life” (Balas 1978, p. 36). He started from transforming everyday objects in his studio such as chairs, tables, podiums, cups, and vases, among others into art objects. For example, he used a wooden cube as a coffee table and later used it as a pedestal for Sleeping Muse (1909). Later, he took a wooden stool, put it on a base and took a photo of it signalling that he regarded it as an object of art. In fact, it was the time of Dadaism and Marcel Duchamp’s cheeky artworks.
Brancusi begins his abandonment of academy with the Kiss (1908), the art work that is radically different from realism of Rodin’s eponymous artwork. The Kiss became iconic because Brancusi managed to make it very simple but refreshingly original. Stripping the visual idea of any additional lines, Brancusi emphasises similar forms of man and woman outlining them in the rectangular shape of the marble. The gender distinctions are hinted in the round shape of breasts and long lines of hair. The Sleeping Muse (1910) continues the minimalist endeavours of Brancusi, but it looks very different from the Kiss. Making a portrait of his female friend, Brancusi casts a head from bronze and exhibits it lying on its side. There are many variants of this sculpture; however, whether with painted hairline or done in marble, the female head is emphatically smooth with accentuated eye brows. Talking about the Cup series (1915-1925), it is roughly carved cups that can be both used in their everyday function and be exhibited in museums. The Arch (1917), in turn, was primarily used in his studio as an arch and only later it was suggested for exhibition. Similarly, the Medallions (1918) were made by Brancusi from a block of wood and a ring with no particular purpose.
However, with the Chimera (1918), Brancusi starts a period of juxtaposing geometric elements and staking them on each other. In fact, it reflects the influence of Brancusi’s native Roman art, African art, and his tendency to minimalism. The trend towards stacking and assemblage is repeated later with King of Kings (1920) and Socrates (1923). Meanwhile, for the Golden Bird (1919), Brancusi forsakes an idea of the figural and tries to capture the essence of the bird. He again works with an idea of smooth and extremely elongated shapes and manages to show an idea of flight rather than a bird itself. Leda (1920), the New Born (1925) and the Fish (1930) also tap into Brancusi’s love of smoothness and roundness. He also employs his penchant to transform pedestals into works of art too. Moreover, both Leda and the New Born are exhibited on pedestals made from the same or contrasting materials. When the sculptures are made from shiny metal, the base is also metal. However, sometimes smooth and shiny Leda and the New Born are demonstrated on matt marble or rough stone.
Additionally, Brancusi extended his sculpturing activities outside and was engaged in public environment. One of the most famous sculptures is the Endless Column (1937), and even though it may seem a continuation of the topic that had been started before, the Endless Column is made around a radically new concept for Brancusi. He argues that in public space, an artist’s work should be like a beacon and be visible from afar. It explains why this sculpture becomes a focal point in the cities where it is installed. The Endless Column is part of the ensemble installed in the Romanian city Targu Jiu and is joined by the Table of Silence and the Gate of Kiss. The latter two art objects are characterised by robust shapes and a motif of endurance and perseverance.
Similarly to Brancusi, Richard Pousette-Dart could have neatly fit into the category of Abstract Expressionism, as he was often categorised. However, Pousette-Dart chose his own way and a shimmering identity. Striving to find his own identity, Pousette-Dart started with tribal motifs and abstracted theme. Animal Head (1936) is largely abstracted but still features figurative elements, namely an eye, an egg, and a lizard-looking shape of an animal. Soon Pousette-Dart decided that he needs to do more to be different. He began his career from being completely dissimilar to his contemporaries. His first paintings were of exceptionally large size and signalled a new period for American painting. Pousette-Dart’s Symphony Number 1, the Transcendental was 90×120 inch oil on canvas and created in 1941, it anticipated large-scale paintings of Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning. Evidently, it is no longer Cubism from which Pousette-Dart originated as an artist, and it is no longer figurative art, even though the spectator still can notice geometric shapes. In the early 1950s, Chavade (1951) signalled a more distinct abandonment of figurative art, and it was white paint and pencil outlining geometric shapes. In Illumination Gothic (1958), the artist returned the colour but continued his work with geometry.
In 1962, Pousette-Dart works with such heavy impasto that he creates a 3D effect in his works. With regard to Amalfa (1962), it is a large canvas with blobs of various colours. The technique Pousette-Dart employs can be called “pointillism,” but Jim Long in the article “Richard Pousette-Dart” suggests the reader to call it “particles” rather than points because the artist wanted to make his artworks as much real as possible (Long 2005). Talking about Golden Presence (1961), it is made of golden particles of colour and reminds a surface shimmering from sunlight. By the end of the 1980s, the artist continues to employ geometric patterns, but often he assigns something to dominate the picture. In Now a Turning Orb (1987), a large yellow circle is placed in the centre on the grid of geometric shapes.
Probably this desire to make ‘real’ explains Pousette-Dart’s penchant to switch media. Apart from paintings, the artist also often worked with photography, and his technique was “a technique of dotting in tone to create photographic ‘reality’” (Long 2005). By interchanging painting and photography, Pousette-Dart can continue his search for self more effectively. In paintings, he uses more colours, whereas his photographic works are black and white. Allemande (1951) is a large abstract painting of chaotic vertical lines. Many of them are drippings of paint from the top of the painting to the bottom. With the base in solemn dark colours made against a white rectangle, the drips are of bright red, yellow, green and turquoise. The painting is vibrating for the spectator standing in from of it. Evidently, the artist’s constant search for artistic and personal identity caused a change of a medium. At some state, Pousette-Dart became infatuated with drawing in wire. Thus, Bird Woman (1939) is a bundle of elements wrapped in wire and exhibited as a sculpture.
Summarising, one can say that Brancusi’s artistic identity is comprised of repetitions, juxtaposition of similar elements, similar techniques of polishing or rough surface, assemblage and other elements. However, these elements where added during his lifetime, and in each moment of his artistic life, he was different and changing. Similarly, Pousette-Dart was working within the genre of modernism, but all his characteristics and favourite motifs and techniques reveal that his pursuit of the self was constant. Pousette-Dart was not satisfied with his identity of Abstract Expressionist, and he always expanded his horizon and tried different media and different techniques. In line with Hume’s argument of having core at the centre of someone’s identity, Pousette-Dart and Brancusi reveal that they were never pleased with their newly-found self and continued their search. Throughout one’s life, an individual has absolutely different ideas, feelings, emotions, and perceptions, and there is only one connection between them, which is the fact that they are in the head of one person. Otherwise they are disconnected, as Hume argues, but they unite, thereby constituting a whole similar to a chain. It is unified and long and comprises different parts, but there is nothing that united them together. The same is related to people. There is no core but a sum of perceptions that are always changing. Pousette-Dart and Brancusi had been changing throughout their careers, thereby defying the general notion of an artistic identity and acting in line with Hume’s definition.