And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts
William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”
Face masks have become the cultural item of 2020: more or less every person on the planet has had to define their relationship to them in the last six months, and around the world they have become a topic for politics and art as well as science.
First we talked about how effective they are as a means of protection, and concluded that generally they are a good thing and everyone should wear one. This pushed the discussion into politics, where petulant presidents were scolded in the press for not setting a good example, and global anti-mask demonstrations took place – mainly on the grounds that wearing one is an infringement of personal freedom.
But I think this attitude misunderstands the magic of the mask: it is actually a device to enhance personal freedom. By hiding the wearer’s identity and providing a new face, masks create an opportunity for metamorphosis, something often seen in popular culture: masks turn Marinette into Ladybug, Bruce Wayne into Batman and Carlo Waibel into Cro, for example.
The phenomenon is also common in the real world: across Africa masks are worn in traditional rituals and ceremonies, and in cities like Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Cologne during carnival, where people use masks to have a holiday from themselves, it is the unmasked that are the outsiders.
Also, In the age of Instagram, many people use the skills of die Maske, the theatrical make-up artist, to create their online image, which they increasingly wear all day every day.
Here at Cologne International School, we are also beginning to see more artistic expression in masks: students are customising theirs with slogans, while Mr. Lindel sports a customised mask with the bottom half of his face printed on it, giving us a “gruselig” version of his full face!
Masks facilitate freedom of expression rather than restrict it. They allow us to play with our identities, which can lead to harmless fun or dangerous games; so don’t forget to take yours off at night and have a good look in the mirror at the real you.