Until recently, my grand unified theory of art appreciation was: “We like things that remind us of ourselves.” American Beauty was my favorite movie because I saw a patchwork of my own experiences in its characters. I loved The Fountain, in spite of all its flaws, because it reflected back to me my own almost all-consuming fear of death. Sweeney Todd shared my dark sense of humor, and the cult sci-fi series Farscape was about surviving in a universe that felt arbitrarily hostile — an accurate depiction of my worldview in 1999.
It’s true that I see aspects of myself in the movies and TV shows I choose to identify with, but lately I’m starting to wonder if it works the other way, too. I’m starting to wonder if our liking something—or deciding to like something, deciding to tie our identities to it in some way—also changes who we are.
The thing that made me wonder about this was the day I pre-ordered a DVD of The Great Beauty.
The Great Beauty won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2014 and, when I first saw it a few weeks beforehand, I walked out feeling like I didn’t enjoy it that much. The film’s main character, Jep Gambardella, is a wealthy writer who spends much of his time complaining with his friends about how hard it is to be the idle rich. The story is a series of slow-moving, loosely-connected and not-in-themselves-very-interesting vignettes that, strung together, make a very simple point: life is a series of fractured, fleeting moments, and it’s foolish to sit around waiting for something amazing to happen — you have to take your beauty where you can get it. It’s a moving insight and it resonates with me, but I understood the message well before we reached the end. And, since buying the DVD, I have actually never managed to sit through the movie again without turning it off. But I like looking at it. I like knowing that it’s there, nested on my shelf, with all the other DVDs. And I’ve been trying to figure out why.
The first question is why I bought a DVD at all. We have on-demand streaming services now (I’m subscribed to three), to say nothing of pay-per-view rentals or library access. The wait to have a physical copy of something delivered can feel excruciating. There’s also a sense that, while your DVDs wither and die on a shelf—getting corroded, collecting dust, and waiting to be surpassed by the next big thing in home entertainment—streaming and digital files are forever. I don’t disagree with any of these points, but there’s something in me—some magpie-like instinct to drag objects back to my nest—that makes me want a hard copy. I want it to occupy space, and be part of something curated—an altar I’ve built to myself.
The first and most obvious explanation for why this particular thing ended up on the altar is just that I’m pretentious and like to remind myself that I can appreciate high culture, even if I sometimes yawn so hard it makes me cry. I first studied criticism at a school where it was “brave” to say that I liked popular things. So whenever I sit down to watch something that’s not in wide release, I feel duty-bound to find something I like about it, just to prove I’ve understood.
If the reason I bought The Great Beauty is to remind myself that I’m a serious critic with the ability to appreciate serious movies, I’m probably not alone. Social psychologist Sam Gosling has written an entire book about how people curate a sense of identity by hand-picking the items in their homes. In Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, Gosling writes that “identity claims” are one of the three main functions our possessions serve. Other-directed identity claims are messages we want to send the world about ourselves — “Katherine owns a copy of The Great Beauty, so she must understand important cinema.” Self-directed identity claims are messages we send to ourselves, reminding us of who we are or want to be — “I own a copy of The Great Beauty, so I must understand important cinema.”
So perhaps I bought this DVD just to make myself look smart. The only problem with this explanation is that it doesn’t account for the fact that, deep down, I actually do like something about The Great Beauty, even if I have no desire to see it all again. Looking at the DVD reminds me of that resonant message at the film’s core — that ambivalent, paradoxical feeling, where acknowledging that there is no great beauty becomes the great beauty and enables us to all move forward with our lives. It’s a feeling that I can hold onto for about five seconds before the normal day-to-day concerns of my life overtake me again and I start to forget. In that sense, I like, and stare at, and choose to identify with The Great Beauty because I’m trying to remind myself of an idea I don’t want to forget — I’m trying to induce myself to be the version of me that remembers.
In Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong argue that, among other things, we use art for remembering and self-understanding. By way of example, they write, “You could point to this image and say, ‘that’s what I’m like, sometimes, and I wish I were like that more often.’” Art keeps our insights accessible to us, and gesturing to art allows us to articulate ourselves more clearly since “we are mysterious to ourselves and therefore no good at explaining who we are to others.”
In fact, I bought a copy of Art as Therapy after reading it through the library not because I thought I’d ever read it again, but because I wanted it to remind me that for at least a few minutes, while I was reading the book, I was the sort of person who understood fine art, and I would like to be that way more often—just as I would like, more often, to be the sort of person who remembers that life is a series of moments which are not very impressive in themselves but add up to something worthwhile.
My choosing to identify with The Great Beauty—to make it part of my movie collection, a self-and-other-directed identity claim about me—is surely an attempt to remind myself of the sort of person I sometimes am and want to be more. What I wonder, though, is whether the act of identifying with The Great Beauty has actually changed who I am. I wonder whether identity is a stable thing we reference, express, and discover, or a fluid thing that we actively craft all the time.
For much of my life, I’ve been told that I will either become or discover who I am—as if it’s a destination I’ll arrive at without any effort on my part, something that will happen naturally over time, perhaps something I’ll simply grow into. But I’m also told that self-discovery is like an excavation—we uncover something that’s already there. We find our true selves, leaving what I suppose must be our false selves behind. The older I get, though, the more I think that self-discovery isn’t an excavation at all. It also isn’t something that naturally happens, without any effort or choice. The older I get, the more I think that our natural state is to constantly change—to be carried forward on a rushing river, past boulders and trees and moose and logs, and it’s only when we consciously decide to try to stop ourselves—when we lasso one of the trees to hold our position—that we actually start to slow down.
Identifying with anything—choosing to attach ourselves to movies, or stories, or artwork, or people, or the versions of ourselves we are when those movies and stories and works and people are in front of us—is choosing to stop in the river. Deciding what, in the great rush of things passing by, has meaning for us, and means enough to hold onto, is how we become who we are. It’s how we construct who we are: how we freeze something when its natural state is to move.
Psychologists have known for a long time that our personalities and life stories change more often and more radically than we believe. We constantly adjust our own perceptions of the past to suit what’s happening now, and while we may recognize that we’ve changed in the last few years, we underestimate how much we’ll continue to change in the future. Tethering ourselves to identity markers can be a way of defending against the unknown future—the present self staking a claim in hopes that the future self will abide by it. As Gosling writes in Snoop, “You don’t tattoo yourself with a message you believe is going to be transitory.” You also don’t tattoo yourself with a message you want to be transitory.
If identity claims are a way to stabilize an inherently unstable sense of self, that goes a long way toward explaining why people fight so hard to hold onto the anchors they’ve chosen. For the right person, die-hard fandom can be a religion. Looking to a particular movie, TV show, or book not only to reflect your personal identity, but to actually be a part of your identity, can make you bristle in response to criticism, or to alternate, less flattering interpretations of the text. The often mean-spirited comment that fans should “get a life” can even be read as meaning, “Anchor your identity to something else; something that I perceive as more valuable.”
It seems true that anchoring our identities to more than one thing will make them harder to destabilize. But I wonder if stability is what I actually want. The point of The Great Beauty—of this thing that I put on a shelf to remind me of who I sometimes am and want to be—is that there’s no grand narrative that links the moments of our lives together, no transcendental event that tells us “This is what being alive is about.” In order to appreciate the beauty of our lives, we have to content ourselves with things that are impermanent—with the way that the world shifts around us from moment to moment—without trying to freeze it and hold it in place. And I wonder if it isn’t just as beautiful to be content with selves that are always in flux—to look forward to finding out who we’re going to be tomorrow, or ten years from now, and accepting that who we are today will flicker past as quickly as any other moment in our lives.
There could be a version of me a year, or five, or ten from now that thinks this essay is awfully misguided. A version that looks back at it over the rim of my glasses and says, “Oh, that was before. Before I knew who I was. Before I discovered whatever thing it is now that anchors me here, in the river.” And there could be another version after that – and another, and another, each believing it’s the last. Each believing it is wise.
There may come a day when I get rid of my DVD collection, or when The Great Beauty doesn’t seem like a thing I want to tether my sense of self to anymore. There may come a day when I have some other totem that means some version of the same thing (or the opposite thing), but for me, for now, the exciting part is just to wait and see.