The Influence of Specific Environments on the Production of Identity and Subjectivity

Identity is a notion that defines who a person or a group is; a complex of qualities that makes the person or group different from the others. Meanwhile, subjectivity refers to personal beliefs or feelings, rather than facts. Both notions are subordinate to the environment and its influences. There are many factors that affect the formation of each specific identity or subjective worldview. There are many different nations in the world with distinct mentalities. The Northern peoples, such as Germans, Scandinavians, Danish and others, tend to be calmer, more reserved, and organized, while the Southern nations, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, and Arabs are more open-minded, sociable, and active. Social, political, economic, cultural, and geographic environment, as well as genetic code and memory, define a people as a group with specific identity and a person as a medium of subjectivity within the identity.
On a smaller scale, a particular environment defines the character of a group and distinguishes personalities within the group. Undoubtedly, the representatives of the IT area differ from musicians, and regardless of their nationalities, they have much in common. The discourse of their similarities is the point where their interests are intersected, which proves that within each common area, there are paradigmatic points of intersections. For instance, a group of musicians might hold worldviews opposing to those of a group of technicians. At the same time, there is a paradigm of movements and directions in music, so that jazz or blues musicians are far different from hard rock performers, or the worldview of the Renaissance musicians conflicts with that of the Modernist ones.
The differentiation within the mentalities is quite common, but with the constant and rapid changes in the world the variety of identities and subjectivities now refers to other categories. Globalization has become the main point of merging the identities within personal possibilities of a social element to remain topical. In this case, geographical borders have less influence than they used to fifty years ago, but the essence of categorization becomes the information and awareness of a certain social subject in the world’s changes within the area of interest. Although the latter point appears in the foreground, the national identity is still the background of each social element. Indisputably, various specific environments produce different experiences of identity or subjectivity. This paper aims to define such processes and discourses essential for this production. To illustrate the research, two related environments from different historical periods will be compared. The artistic area will be chosen as a case study, which includes poetry and visual art as the main agents of reflection of identity formation throughout the time. The paper will uncover the main differences between the way art and poetry were performed in Renaissance compared to Contemporary art, and how the change of world view, philosophy, and cultural conditions influence the identity and its reflection in art and literature.
Many scholars admit the fact that contemporary globalization processes affect artistic processes, so that art and literature have become a part of philosophy and performance rather than a pure artistic element, as it was in the past. However, globalization has created a quite different approach to art. The process of gathering local settlements into urban spaces in Ancient Greece, Roman Empire, during the revival after the Middle Ages (also known as Dark Ages) led to the flourishing of cultural areas. The paper reveals how cultural and globalization processes in different historical periods influenced the formation of identity and subjective thought of Renaissance artists and poets compared to the contemporary ones, and how this worldview was reflected in art and literature. It also analyses the differences between the performances of artworks in two periods and defines the role of globalization in the discourse of the reflection and identity formation.

Outcomes of Globalisation Processes

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To begin with, the power of art has always been essential for identifying the power of a state, where particular art is represented. It is undeniable that the more developed a state is economically and politically, the more elaborated art becomes. For instance, the Roman Empire demonstrated outstanding achievements in art (especially, in architecture) at the climax of its flourishing under the reign of Augustus. The established bases and rules remained dominant in all architectural styles and even urban buildings long after the Empire’s decay. Roman basilicas were transformed into the Christian temples and still serve as an example of the immaculate construction of sacral buildings. The Renaissance emerged in Florence and spread through Italian cities to the rest of Europe. At that time, Florence was a prosperous state, which political, economic, and social potency created an advantageous atmosphere for cultural development. Moreover, the globalization processes of the 14th-16th centuries led to the increase in knowledge and practical artistic and scientific skills in different areas all over Europe. The colonization, migration, re-measuring the world, and expansion of its borders led to the cultural growth. Overall, the changes during the Renaissance are considered to be positive ones, on the contrary to today’s thought (Massey, 1991, p. 25).
In terms of visual art, as well as poetry, contemporary globalisation processes are described in controversial ways. Jane M. Jacobs discusses the issue of local versus global in the City of London (1996). She argues that London is a kind of a nostalgic city, which, on the one hand, preserves the traditions of imperialism. On the other hand, it is a modern capital city and business centre that needs to be changed in terms of architecture. The tendencies of the new world order always reflect on the city’s face, which is a must in the historical discourse. However, it is arguable, because excessive innovations can harm the view of historical heritage, and so they should match the overall ensemble (Jacobs, 1996, p. 41). At the same time, during the described period, , many localisation processes took place, and village-like houses were being built mostly to protect the conservative ideas (p. 43). 2
So, the globalisation as a process involved different discourses of colonisation and absorption of the local cultures in the past and the urbanisation and development of the mass culture now, which results in time-space compression (Massey, 1991, p. 24).

Performance and Performative

The high art of the Renaissance, which is considered to be genius nowadays, was not that pure. For instance, its value is not arguable today, and it is exhibited in the museums as a separate element. On the one hand, no one denies the inestimable value of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David. On the other hand, there are many other works of art of the same quality that are not displayed in the museums as the highest achievements of human culture. The reason for these works to be called ‘classics’ is that they are performed as classics. Even in the times of Michelangelo, his 5-meter sculpture of David (see figure 1) was not just a piece of pure art, but a part of performance in the centre of the square, where people could admire it and get excited, because they had never seen anything like that before. As to contemporary art, it tends to be more performative, while its performance includes something different.
The central idea of David was the beauty of human’s body and the high quality of the master’s work with the material within the space, which serves as a background. The idea of the majority of contemporary sculptures is to make a performance or installation, where space and time are in a dynamic continuum. The quality of the work does not matter as much as it used to in the Renaissance, but what matters is the philosophy or message the artwork carries. It becomes a piece of art only when it has viewers or even participants, who are aware of its meaning. An excellent example of such a notion is Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seed Exhibition (see figure 2). The work presents tons of porcelain seeds, painted separately by the artist (see figure 3). It reflects the idea of globalisation, which can make one think that the loss of identity is the outcome of today’s world conditions. In addition, Ai Wei Wei also emphasizes the opposite – the presence of various personalities with their subjective thoughts and intentions, even though they look the same at first glance. Without the explanation, the exhibition looks like an agrarian piece of work, and it is impossible to evaluate its higher level message having no knowledge of its prehistory. The idea of these examples is that the performance in terms of artworks has been substituted with its object and became the subject of an artwork.
According to Richard Schechner, performance can support any kind of art, as it is a complex of what surrounds the piece of art, the time and place it is performed, et cetera. The main argument here is that the performance is an action (2004, p. 27). Michelangelo’s performance of David is the process of showing and watching, which includes the object – David and its addressees, who perceive it visually. To enjoy the beauty, it is irrelevant to know the author’s biography, the history of the sculpture’s creation, and his philosophy. However, it is desirable to know more in order to get a complete aesthetic satisfaction. At the same time, it is impossible to understand the performance of Sunflower Seeds in the same way. This kind of performance has to involve an explanation that provides an aesthetic contentment of the whole process of getting acquainted with this work. Moreover, it contains hidden meanings and concealed philosophy that you might not elicit from only watching.
The interesting fact is that the change of epochs provides different interpretations of the message of works. The example is Rembrandt’s Night Watch. The painting has a controversial history and is considered to be one of the most mysterious paintings after Mona Lisa and The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci. This is the picture that reveals a crime of murder, which is the contemporary interpretation of the message from the Renaissance epoch that might have been different then. So, the image gets a new discourse and carries other concepts, while being performed in the film. The interpretation of the painting now provides it with the new identity, different from the previous one. The change of policy within the critical approach to analysing art demonstrates the influence it had. It has become freer now, while the former social restrictions do not matter anymore. Peter Greenway, the director of the documentary Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (2008), which explains all the mysteries related to the picture, conveys an interesting thought at the beginning of the film. He provides the viewers with the idea that people are far too poor in reading visual images compared to the ability of reading a text. This is a paradox, because visual material is much better to memorise and recreate in the memory throughout the time. Nevertheless, people understand much less from the image than from the written text, while images can carry much more information. In his work Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research, Conquergood emphasises that the contemporary community suffers from scriptocentrism (2002, p. 147).
Scholarly texts are bare and descriptive – they often have little in common with real life and true experience. It is important to supply them with the illustrations and involve them in a performance to make them understandable. In this case, the biggest impact on the identity formation has the combination of the text and its visualisation. For this reason, the modern commercial is the most influential factor in defining identity. Mass media use this principle everywhere – from the commercial of new cleaning devices to the lectures of TED education. The crucial moment here is whether the society is able to filter this information. The discussed issue of the inability to read separate images and their messages does not mean that they have no influence on both consciousness and subconsciousness. Mass media exploits this phenomenon and often contrasts texts with the image provided, which can create a wrong concept in the viewer’s mind. For instance, if a person sees a beautiful happy woman drinking Coca-Cola (see figure 4), he or she begins to project the feelings onto him or herself, but the image involves the text on the bottle, which a person ignores. The consumers might then conclude that to feel like the person from the advertisement, they should drink Coca-Cola. This is an obvious and simple example, but there are far more complex factors of influence on the consciousness that include films, TV-shows, magazines, and the Internet. The power of such performance is undeniable, because it is a plain fact that Coca-Cola is one of the biggest corporations, and its drink is popular all over the world. Interestingly, the professional artists and writers were involved in the creation of Coca-Cola’s commercials.
Andrew Bennet and Nicholas Royle in the chapter “The Performative” in their work An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, mention the speech-act theory by Austin (2004, p. 237). This theory predicts that any word or word combination is the reflection of an action or the imperative. As they interpret Derrida’s claim that the word is always a promise – something that not only describes an action, but creates the image of this action in the head of a reader or listener. This is a contemporary approach to the language as a verbal semiotic system (Wolfreys, 2004, p. 182-189). 5 One may state that the identity of contemporary people within the perception of the language is directed at the action. On the contrary, it was aimed at the object in the past. At the same time, for both periods of time speech has always been deictic (Bennet, Royle, 2004, p. 240). The difference is the target of the observation. While the Renaissance people only admired the image, modern people are ready to act. To show these notions are opposed, two poems with similar motifs are contrasted. These are Sonnet 23 by Shakespeare – ( and Timer by Hugo Williams (
Dyvers doth use as I have hard and kno,
When that to chaunge ther ladies do beginne,
To mone and waile, and never for to lynne,
Hoping therby to pease their painefull woo.
And some ther be, that when it chaunceth soo
That women chaunge, and hate wher love hath bene,
Thei call them fals, and think with wordes to wynne
The hartes of them which otherwhere doth goo.
But as for me, though that by chaunse indede
Change hath out-worne the favor that I had,
I will not wayle, lament, nor yet be sad,
Nor call her fals that falsley ded me fede :
But let it passe and think it is of kinde,
That often chaunge doeth plese a womans minde.
Shakespeare’s sonnet represents the identity of a Renaissance way of thinking among the poets. First of all, the language is too complicated for understanding; all the metaphors reflect intricate groups of images. The main motif of this poem is the change of life situations, which do not depend on the poet, but on a woman he used to love; and how the literary character copes with it. What the reader might imagine is the feelings of the author who shares them. He does not make the reader feel the same, but sympathize the given mood. The author and the literary character here are the same – Shakespeare does not hide behind his poem but demonstrates his feelings. According to the cultural demands of Renaissance culture, each artwork is an open-minded expression of a thought, where the elaborate language provides a light flow of literary tropes that are clear to the reader. In this poem, one may notice the self-centred subject, whose aim is to express the mood. The identity of the subject is obvious and has no inter-textual secret message.
An interesting fact is that all the verbs are mostly in the past forms. The meaning of this may be hidden in the idea of the revival of the Ancient Greek and Roman tradition in culture. The nostalgia for the past is a feature of this period. All the cultural and social circumstances of the period, the growth of self-centred identification through the artworks led to the subjectivity of the artistic expression but generally related to the common style. The medieval and contemporary poetry share many similar features, as well as differ to some extent.
The smell of ammonia in the entrance hall.
The racing bike. The junk mail.
The timer switch whose single naked bulb
allowed us as far as the first floor.
The backs of your legs
as you went ahead of me up the stairs.
The landing where we paused for breath
and impatient key searching.
The locks which would never open quickly enough
to let us in.
The green of the paintwork we slid down
as if we had nowhere else to go.
This poem consists of the simple sentences with the nouns in the centre of them. However, they are more verbal than those in the previous poem. Each sentence is a different message that includes different images. The total image of this poem is torn into pieces and gathered into one complete picture by the end, like a puzzle. Williams’s motif is similar to the Shakespearean nostalgia for the change, but the images are more powerful here, mostly because the language is less sophisticated. However, simple sentences create the more complicated combination of images, which often contrast each other. Unlike the Shakespearean light flow of the passages and linguistic labyrinth, Williams chooses the kaleidoscopic expression of the different concepts. Such an approach is caused by the influence of today’s information pressure. People nowadays are unable to process all the flows of information they get. Their consciousness is fragmented, as well as the literary work is. While Shakespeare used to submerge into his own mood and worries, Williams tends to make an image out of a number of different images, not always complete ones but separate from each other.
It is obvious that the main difference between the identities of the authors is the difference between the sources of their inspiration. These are the conceptual world views as the Renaissance one used to be more subjective and self-centred. It was focused on the subject and self-expression, while the contemporary world view is built on the fragments of the different epochs, areas of arts and studies. It is mixed, which is also a reflection of the globalisation processes.
To conclude, the way the identity is formed is influenced by different social, economic, political, and cultural processes. The paper uncovered how the cultural environment influenced the worldview of Renaissance artists and poets in comparison to the contemporary ones. The conclusion is based on the analysis of their artworks. Renaissance artists used to create art objects and perform them independently in the background. The idea of each artwork or a piece of literature is focused on its external beauty and classic laws of symmetry and rhythm. The performance is quite simple and open for the eyes of the viewers or readers.
On the contrary, the modern artists and poets put the performance of their work in the foreground, and it is impossible to extract the actual artwork out of its environment, as it is a part of performance. Moreover, each artwork, either it is a sculpture or a poem, demands the previous knowledge because it consists of different contextual and inter-textual concepts, which are hidden or puzzled within the artwork to reflect the complicated philosophy of today. Each artwork is an expression of the collective consciousness, which contrasts with the self-centred expression of Renaissance art.
The social processes are seen to influence the way art or literature is performed. Among such processes, the paper discussed the process of globalisation. During the period when Renaissance used to be predominant philosophy, globalisation processes encompassed the colonization of the weaker peoples by the dominating ones in Europe. This phenomenon led to spreading culture and cultural movements with all their philosophy across Europe. Globalisation is now inclined to the simplification of art, its transaction into the mass culture on the one hand, and its elaboration and complicated philosophy of performance on the other hand. Art and poetry today are not in focus of its perception, but the background, as the pre-history and circumstances play the same important role. Such a difference makes contemporary art dynamic compared to the static medieval art and literature. The images are cropped, and the angles become an essential matter of art perception, which is a reflection of the globalization processes, where the consciousness is rather collective than subjective.

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