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Mea culpa manifesto

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SEPTEMBER 19, 2016

Don’t ask me what kind of music I like. Don’t ask me what I’m into. Just ask me who I am, and I’ll give you a list of songs and artists and movies and shows and books that built a personality.

I like art to defy category or definition. I like it to be at once funny and awe-inspiring. I want it to overwhelm my senses and drown me. I want a Rococo trash pile, baroque and slimy and deeply affecting.

Cue the record scratch: I’m just really fake. In high school, I used to be so scared that somebody would put me in a box that I’d do everything within my power to evade any definition. I couldn’t always tell what I liked or why I liked something, but I’d keep it to myself.

I just needed to know more than everyone else I knew. My friends would name drop an artist and I’d Google them discreetly on my phone and then enter the conversation pretending I knew what I was talking about. I’ve done it about Crystal Castles and Regina Spektor and Swans and the Strokes and every little indie band that’s ever existed. I definitely got away with it every time.

Art has defined everything about me, flattened me out and made me two-dimensional. I have become an imitation of the work that I love. My shadow is impressive enough to make people look at it and like it and talk to it like it’s a real person.

To be clear: There was a long period of time when all this meant a whole lot to me. Music taught me how to cry. I’ve always been so emotionally constipated that the art I exposed myself to was what formed my capacity to feel.

I’ve always liked when making the art was damaging to the person that made it. Amy Winehouse and Jeff Mangum are my icons not just because they made beautiful things but because their work hurt them so much to make. I get to project myself onto the stuff I was consuming with visible proof that it mattered to somebody that much.

I’ve romanticized that pain since I was in middle school, and I still don’t fully believe they were wrong. I still believe in their purity, but I don’t think I’m allowed to take part in it anymore. Being the biggest fan in the room doesn’t count as a personality.

It’s hard for me to even talk about myself beyond dark, witty platitudes because I don’t entirely believe there’s a full, rich person behind everything I consumed. Somebody makes a song, and then they get to pretend that their work is an honest imprint of them instead of the strange, specific fantasy projection of themselves that it ends up becoming. That’s what I got to turn myself into: The weirdest, most artfully created, confusing version of myself. I consumed a lot of pop culture as a kid and then made a personality out of it.

That personality has become so absurd. I live deep within this long-term obsession with evading definition. I want to eclipse the boundary between high and low. In wiping away what it means to have taste and be cultured now, I want to shatter the notion that there even is such a thing as good taste anymore anyway. I want to investigate the esteemed and the banal and make them both matter. I want to be reminded that my pretentious taste is pointless.

I want all the culture I’ve consumed to turn the corniness in me into something transcendent. I want to listen to Jimmy Buffett and to know that he’s engaging with the divine and that his art is important and that I am art and that I am important just like he is. I want to put Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Alexander Pushkin in a room in my head and shut the door and make them talk about the ramifications of writing poetry and the interpersonal politics of Gym Tan Laundry. In the same brush stroke, I’ve become myself just as much through all six seasons of “Jersey Shore” as I have through reading and rereading “Eugene Onegin.”

I’ve consumed endlessly, and now I am the product of that consumption. I want to build myself on more than that.

We should not create anything anymore. We should just create ourselves.

Justin Knight writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on building identity by consuming culture. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @jknightlion.

SEPTEMBER 19, 2016

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