Saturday, September 13, 2008

Myth and Modern Art

I don't even remember what my mother and I were talking about when she handed me a little book entitled "A Short History of Myth" but it has certainly influenced my thoughts over the past few weeks. The short tome by Karen Armstrong is a succinct exploration of human development, both psychological and sociological, and how our myths shifted in order to reflect our evolutions: starting in the Paleolithic Period, it travels all the way through the industrial revolution (aka, the Axial Age) and into the "Great Western Transformation." Even from the first few pages, it was startlingly apparent that "myth" is intrinsically linked to my own definition of "conceptual art." So, I have been working out how that is and what that means for my art and for society at large.

Ideas of "truth" are very complicated in modern times. For us, something can be scientifically proven, or historically reliable and objects are objects- they have their own production history, but their symbology is limited to what they are and nothing more. However, human beings thousands of years ago had no way of distinguishing between reality and the sacred. In language it's referred to as the Holophrasic Theory of Language. Think of it as a "star with the points representing where we are today- cognitive language, scientific language, emotive language, poetic language, utilitarian language- and the center of the star symbolizes that earlier linguistic imploded time when myth was science and science was belief and belief was poetry" (Campbell, 54.) In other words, we have multiple truths as defined by the different languages mentioned above: an emotional truth, ie: "I love you", cannot be proven or disproven by the language of science (although that doesn't seem to keep us from trying: pharamones, what?) It's truth is not denied because of it's lack of scientific proof. But back in the Paleolithic Period (c. 20000 to 8000 BCE) even objects took on all qualities of their sacred implications. Stories were told to help people understand the sacred ramifications of the world around them. "The earliest mythologies taught people to see through the tangible world to a reality that seemed to embody something else. ... When these early people looked at a stone, they did not see an inert, unpromising rock. It embodied strength, permanence, solidity and an absolute mode of being... (Armstrong, 16.)

Now that, to me, sounds a lot like Joan Watson's Introduction to Sculpture class. I think it took her an entire semester to get us seeing material for what it embodies, not how easy it was to work with or whether we would be forced to use a hot glue gun (what?!? Hot glue!! Fired from art school!) But I'll get to this in a second.

Ok, so back to myth. Throughout human development myths, in this case orally transmitted stories, were told in order to help us figure out how better to be "more fully human." Logic and reason can allow us to kill animals and eat them in order to avoid starvation, but it could never help us cope with our grief or with the greater questions of humanity that were inflicted by such a violent action. They were stories about how to act toward eachother, toward the planet, and toward the animals we hunted. When we turned to agriculture, the stories turned toward tales of copulation and fertility. Once we developed cities, our myths and "gods" shifted to reflect city-living. It wasn't until we started to live by the rules of industrialization and capitalism that that the Institution of Myth was fatally challenged.

The birth of Western Civilization in Europe (c. 1500 give or take a few hundred years) was closely followed by the fracturing of Christianity, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial/Consumer revolution. As each of these developments were solely founded upon ideas of Logic the human need for myth was negated. Myth was now seen as something useless, false and outmoded. "Unlike myth, logos must correspond to facts; it is essentially practical;... it constantly looks ahead to achieve a greater control over our environment or to discover something fresh" (Armstrong, 121). The world that we are living in today has been without Myth- Myth as human beings have understood it since the dawn of understanding- for almost 500 years, and the psychological toll has been obvious. "As early as the sixteenth century, we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place" (Armstrong, 122).

I think that the evidence of our looking forward is obvious: we can see it in the technology we strive for, the pop culture we cling to, and the fact that nobody respects their elders any more. The grand anomie is obvious, too: anyone living in a big city like Baltimore or Philadelphia can express that sense of overwhelming ennui, that feeling that everyone is trying so hard for no real gain, no change in life, no real ramifications. But are humans capable of living without myth? It seems to me that even as the definition of truth splintered, especially more recently with the rise of postmodernism, we have found ways to fill that need: Art. "In art, liberated from the constraints of reason and logic, we conceive and combine new forms that enrich our lives and which we believe tells us something important and profoundly true" (Armstrong, 9-10).

The parallels between myth and modern conceptual art are astoundingly multifarious.

Art exercises it's own rituals similar to those practiced with mythological story-telling. Where myths' ritualized actions included dance, song, and litany, art has it's own trappings: shows, openings and critiques. Where the responsibility for passing down myth and it's implications rested with chosen individuals, so, too, does the art world have it's hierarchies: artists, critics, art-historians. Art even has it's own sacred spaces- museums, galleries, institutions- in which one is expected to behave in a properly awed and respectful manner.

Artistic concepts are basically metaphors that make social and historical references.  Materials take on certain (and uncertain) symbologies through their inherent characteristics and their history:  how we as a species (and more specifically our place in the species: race, religion, nationality) have interacted with a given material effect how we think of it and thusly, how we read certain art expressions.  Art pieces are basically combinations of situations that make new statements.  The topics that artists choose to explore reflect society, history, technology, future, anthropology- the things that are pressing on the minds of society.  Modern art is a place to ask the important questions away from the baggage of religion.  Secular experiments for a secular society.

However, there are a few differences between myth and modern art that, I feel, are truly rooted in contemporary culture.  Where as myth was the responsibility of one story teller to carry on the traditions and to pass down the stories, modern art is utterly postmodern in it's availablility to anyone with a voice; it accepts that any truth is truth as long as the artists can convince you.

I really like thinking about my participating in the history of myth and humanity.  I love exploring the world through metaphorical eyes and proposing ideas and starting conversations.  I'm glad to be a part of this community.

(Books Referenced:  A Short History of Myth, by Karen Artmstrong, and Artistic Citizenship, by Mary Schmidt and Randy Martin.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nora, I am sooo impressed with your artful thinking! Good work! What Campbell are you citing? Are you familiar with "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" (Julian Jaynes)? Also, I love your "forever" scarf!!