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Art, the great balancing act

This past summer, I embarked on the adventure of creating an album. While artistic work is typically idealized as the realization of an unadulterated vision, I found the creative process to be a balancing act between the impulses of the audience and the various inclinations within the artist. If art imitates life, then the creative process is a microcosm of the human balancing act of living — that endless quest for unachievable equilibrium.

The foremost lesson I gained from this process is that authenticity in self-expression is paramount. Whether in the sphere of fashion or filmmaking, poetry or producing beats, one must embrace the styles and subjects that genuinely resonate with them, as there is nothing more powerful than true passion. There are parts of us and our self-expression that are essential and not negotiable, and while it takes good effort to discern these pieces of ours, once we find them, they will be the bedrock of ourselves in society.  Starting with and loving our authentic attributes gives us pride in how we connect with others and peace when others misunderstand or dismiss us. In art, this process does not always lead to autobiography but rather something truly representative of sentiments and interests deep within the creator. Redefining stories about ourselves to be emblematic of ourselves encourages our imaginations to produce new types of stories and the imaginations of the audience members to find what these works mean to them.

The focused work on this single project also allowed me to refine my relationship with work. The two extremes of labor are laziness and perfectionism, and while the former is almost universally condemned, perfectionism is perpetually upheld despite how destructive it truly is. Nothing is perfect, and in art the best ideas usually arrive on their own in a way for which a creator can take limited credit. The idea that enough work can yield success is obviously tantalizing as a promise that all our dreams can come true, but as my dancing abilities can testify, this is not the human experience. Nothing can ever be perfect, but it can be good and finished, which means that we must set a limit with our work, especially because endless time working means neglecting relationships, which sustain and nurture us more than any labor could.  Fighting against my perfectionism meant campaigning for a project people could hear and for the space to prioritize the people around me.

Only the divine can accomplish anything alone, and in the case of this album, I needed the opinions of others to ensure my creation was the best it could be. We are not omniscient, which means we make mistakes, including in the creative process.  Art is communication, and sometimes our messages don’t work. An audience has enough distance from the creation of a work to discern whether it is successful without the positive creator’s bias, and while making this album, my best friends had the respect and love for me to let me know when a piece didn’t accomplish what I hoped it would. There were certain elements of the project, however, on which I wouldn’t compromise — those aforementioned authentic parts — and my listeners were all moved by those aspects of the work. There are times to accept criticism and times to hold true, and it is only through continuous discernment and then presentation of one’s conclusions that one strengthens that muscle of judgment.

I believe the questions art demands of its creators, the same queries we all face, are impossible to answer definitively. Reconciling personal manifestation with social constructions and the pursuit of a product’s success with the search for fulfilling relationships between oneself and others is the labor of at least more than a lifetime. But I think that keeping an open mind throughout my process has brought me closer to that unreachable answer, in the same way a mathematical function approaches but never hits its limit. I am proud of what I have learned in this field experiment of being human and am resolved to stay receptive for the next lesson I get, from wherever it may come.

The views expressed in the Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Ayden Kowalski

Contact Ayden at akowals2@nd.edu

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We need to start using people-first language. Here’s why. 

As a new anthropology major, I am eager to explore the various subcategories of discipline, including, but not limited to the sociocultural and linguistic aspects of study. And in this, the first week (or so) of classes, my mind has already been opened to the power behind the language used within the area of study consequences that go beyond the classroom.

Academia has historically led the way in terms of linguistic and cultural shifts. A more recent and hotly-debated emergence is, of course, the creation of Critical Theory in sociology, expansion to Critical Race Theory (CRT) in legal studies in law schools across the country, and its (more controversial) recent adaptation and adoption in elementary, middle and high schools. 

While I recognize that imposing standard habits of the practice onto any external group may be met with opposition, I think the case can be made that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages in changing one particular linguistic norm: identity-first language. 

In the realm of discussing disability, we have in the past labeled people with their disability first. “Blind people.” “Austistic person.” “Disabled person.”  It had even been common practice to omit the term “person” or “people” altogether in favor of using the disability identifier as a noun (i.e. “a paraplegic”). Identity-first language can have the effect of limiting a person’s sense of self to their diagnosis, and that is why it is becoming more and more commonplace to favor people-first language (i.e. a person with a disability). It is important to note here, too, that people-first language does not aim to cast aspersions or pass judgements on things like disability by saying “a victim of autism” or “someone afflicted with blindness.” Its goal is to simply acknowledge the differences in an experience-based way.

I was introduced to this issue of identity-first language in a class centering on the anthropological study of obesity. In this, my very surface-level research, I found that a lot of the messaging on even the WHO and CDC websites to be fascinating, including the framing of obesity as a chronic disease instead of what has typically been a framing of a moral deficiency.  I noticed that obesity, as of late, has been framed in relation to the issue of Covid. The CDC site describes obesity and its effects as comorbidities that could lead to a poor prognosis in the event of a Covid diagnosis. This coupling, the conversation of these two conditions in relation to one another, is what I think has partly driven the expansion of our collective understanding of obesity as something that can be a disability as well as something that is more complex than we had initially thought. This, too, is what I think expands people-first language to this condition. 

So when the CDC and WHO use the newer norm of referring to people experiencing obesity as “people with obesity” instead of “obese people,” I strongly feel that this use of people-first language is much more dignifying in addition to being more accurate. People are not solely defined nor identified by any one aspect of their being, especially if that aspect is a diagnosis. People-first language accounts for this, and it is a long overdue linguistic change. It is high time we change our modes of discussion around disability to acknowledge the individual dignity of every person and their lived experience, however varied from ours. It’s worth the extra syllables.

Alexa Schlaerth is a junior at the University of Notre Dame studying anthropology and linguistics. When she’s not slamming hot takes into her laptop keyboard, she can be found schooling her peers in the daily Wordle and NYT mini crossword, rewatching South Park, or planning her next backpacking trip. As an Angeleno, Alexa enjoys drinking overpriced non dairy iced lattes and complaining about traffic because it’s “like, totally lame.” Alexa can be reached on Twitter at @alexa_schlaerth, or via email at aschlaer@nd.edu.