As soon as you acknowledge your audience, you've lost them.
This contradiction sits at the heart of all art: Truly honest expression relies on the fancy trick of convincing yourself you're creating in a vacuum. But being the adulation-craving bunch that artists usually are means that very few create for the sake of pure creation. They may start that way, but inevitably at a certain point the ego kicks in and the need for validation takes over. Or, at the very least, a need to pay the bills. So, they pander to the perceived tastes of an imaginary fanbase and risk losing sight of their artistic selves.
I'll use this very column as an example: My first inclination is to draw the reader's attention to just how dumb my headline is. Indulgent, slightly off topic, and too cute by about half. I'm aware of this. In fact, I'm aware of every $5 word and half-baked run-on sentence that makes it into my copy if only because I worry how it will come across to the reader on the other end of the page.
Now, this admittance may appear at first glance like a refreshing dose of self-awareness, but in reality, it's nothing more than deflection, a preemptive strike of self-deprecation. People are less likely to point out your flaws when you've already beat them to the punch, after all.
It's something that's become common in the Internet Age. It feels like every post on social media comes with a wink and a nod nowadays, nobody wanting to be the one who missed the punchline to the joke. Sincerity doesn't sell like it used to.
In 1994, the late Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace wrote eloquently, as he so often did, about the damage irony had wrought on contemporary literature.
"Postmodern irony and cynicism's become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what's wrong, because they'll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony's gone from liberating to enslaving."
Wallace, who always had an eerie knack for predicting the darkest elements of our media-obsessed future, wrote that during the infancy of the Internet and 24-hour cable news.
Today, the problem isn't confined to just art, but a wider society that walks around constantly glued to black screens. It hasn't done much good for basic social skills, that's for sure. It's like we've forgotten how to express ourselves in a genuine way. Interactions become shrouded in subtext, conversation too often a means to an end. Part of this is just inherent to the complicated nature of communication, but the other part, I believe, stems from an innate fear of vulnerability. And I'm not talking about the calculated oversharing that regularly populates Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines. I'm talking about a pure, raw vulnerability that gets in touch with the version of ourselves we are reluctant to put out in the world.
It's easy to be self-conscious when it's performative. Vulnerability shouldn't be used as a tactic meant to distract from the faults we're too afraid to admit to ourselves, let alone anyone else.
In his landmark 1956 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Irving Goffman observed how people are always acting in some form. The self you present to the grocery store clerk is different from the self you present to your family and the self you present to your friends. But in an era of "too much information," when a persona can be so neatly divided between one's real-world self and idealized online self, touched up and repackaged for the world to see, it's easy to get lost in all the roles we play. The lines dividing our various personas are blurrier than ever.
But if we maintain a healthy distance from those avatars and stay in touch with our objective selves, than achieving true openness becomes a little bit easier.
After all, if we want to communicate with each other more authentically, that conversation has to happen first within ourselves.