Fairly often in life we’re told to adopt roles, play the part, and craft how we appear to others. This idea of the image we’re presenting and how we wish to be seen; all those ways we might make an impression, hide our feelings or conceal our ‘imperfections’.
It reminds me of an exhibit I once went to on masks and how they’ve been used within drama, tradition or belief over the centuries to express different qualities and explore ways they play out. Essentially, looking at how this theatrical device can represent the traits valued or frowned upon by a community, using cultural conventions to reinforce prevailing standards for observers to then reflect upon.
Clearly there’s cultural and social value behind our use of masks: this sense of what’s considered important or praiseworthy; a sort of shorthand visual language for understanding society, where we stand within it, and how we might relate well to others. This drawing to ourselves – from the wealth of human experience – those things we feel most strongly about, that can represent us best in the eyes of others.
It’s this incredibly dynamic communication taking place between individuals and society: options are presented, paths we could walk, and we take our place among them (see Notes One). Like an ongoing social conversation where we’re all choosing our roles, our responses, within the overarching depiction of society and its values that is culture.
In that, do we simply choose a handful of things that define us best? Expressing who we are through what we choose to embody or align ourselves with; using how colour, form and cultural references interact to create new, personal meaning; pulling together our interests to form a sense of self. All the badges we wear or notes we strike from the options we’re offered; hopefully portraying ourselves in the best light.
By definition almost, that’s not truly “you” so much as a series of labels that suit or serve you well for now. It’s a complex mask that may, of course, help others understand us better; but at some point it’s likely to be constrictive or less than true. Masks can serve us in various ways, but never completely define us.
But life’s all about who we are, what matters to us, what we seek to bring into existence, and whether society recognises and reflects our true worth. In that picture, maybe culture’s the code we use, the options we have for finding our place (Notes Two): a reciprocal process of personal expression and social identity shaping how we relate to one another to create the daily drama of life.
Whether any mask can ever capture the richness of each one of us is another question entirely. Even if we were to choose all the ‘best’ masks from the full spectrum of available qualities, I’d still have thought that who we truly are would be a much more multifaceted reality emerging, as it were, from the changeable convergence of where those interests might meet.
Notes and References:
Note 1: Fashion, self & environment
Note 1: How many aren’t well represented?
Note 1: Romance, love & the movies
Note 2: Intrinsic worth over social identity
Note 2: What does art have to say about life?
Note 2: Missing something with modern culture?
Note 2: Culture selling us meaning