my name is asher lev also addresses the issue of the artist's identity. whether that identity can be separated from the artist's cultural context, or how that plays out in their engagement with the world (and thereby finding one's place within it) is one that is explored in various ways. in pursuing his calling as an artist, asher is constantly made aware of how his identity impacts the politics and realities of this other culture he is entering. he is repeatedly faced with the question of the artist's cultural position and place or function in society. it's an extremely crucial issue for him; as it is for every artist. are you an artist first? or is that secondary? can you be an artist without knowing who you are? how do you know who you are? can you figure that own on your own? do you discover that in context of community (or communities)?
it is important to note the importance of a mentor throughout the book. while his parents didn't understand their son, they sought advice and it was determined that asher should receive training for his talent (in addition to training for his soul, of course). his mentor - jacob kahn - focussed primarily on asher's artistic ability, though many of the things he addressed also had repercussions for how asher lived, especially in the area of integrity (and really, identity).
jacob challenged asher to be true to his artistic vision, above all costs, but that he should also be true to who he was. this included embracing or not embracing his own cultural heritage and its expressions (such as side curls or hat or suit). the issue was to make one's own choices and be secure in those choices, not to be ashamed or influenced by others' ideas of who one was supposed to be or what one was supposed to look like or how one was supposed to behave. "to thine own self be true", jacob demanded. this instilled in asher a strength to embrace those aspects of himself, and that in turn gave him the strength to pursue whatever he needed in order to create the work he felt he must.
shortly after he begins being mentored by jacob kahn, asher's mother brings him a book. the book, robert henri's "the art spirit" (interestingly, it's an actual book by henri, who was a member of the ashcan group of painters), contains advice for the artist that will enable him to keep focus and pursue their art: "[the artist] should be powerfully possessed by one idea. He should be intoxicated with the idea of the thing he wants to express" (p. 195) while there certainly must be that kind of commitment and passion to one's chosen subject or idea, the question is, "at what cost?". another quote from henri's book emphasizes again that an artist's allegiance is to the work alone:
every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. every man who has shown the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a "universal" without patriotism,without home, who has found his people everywhere. (p. 201)
but something in this strikes asher as false. "i don't think i want to free myself that way", he says to his mother the morning after reading the above passage. and i agree with him wholeheartedly. i think that somehow it is false to remove yourself from your tradition or cultural context. it's a denial of who you are and where you came from. not that i think your work always has to address that history, overtly or covertly, but that is a place from where you can work, whether in celebration or interrogation. we are, after all, [always] products of our environments. one's cultural context is an important touchstone for the creation of art. "i believe it is man's task to make life holy" (p. 201) asher says, when questioned about his beliefs and, in essence, who he is. the question is whether the positions he holds, the values he espouses, can survive the demands of the art process. perhaps that's where a community outside of the art community gives us strength to enter the fray of art. our art comes out of something, some place, emotional, ideological, spiritual -- it does not form itself ex nihilo, out of nothing. there are negotiations and decisions to be made. who will you choose to be? how will that shape your work?