Just as with sweeteners and coffee, you have natural and artificial options to spice up your art, too. Both sweeteners and symbols are created by moulding reality to our will, but unlike aspartame and the like, artificial symbols don’t have negative health side effects (unless we count war and propaganda, of course).
It does though open up your work to the possibility of being misinterpreted, and in today’s blunder, we’re going to take a peek at how we can at least guide our audiences into the right direction as well as take a jab at the underlying question that many of you might be asking yourselves. Namely, if there even is a “right” direction with art — we might just as easily say that any perspective is a valid one and that there are no “wrong” ways to understand a work of art.
Well, let’s find out!
First, let’s take the basic idea of a symbol and — using our tiny mental equivalents of surgical equipment (our thoughts) — try to see if we can’t find a good and workable definition of what a symbol actually is.
The problem isn’t that symbols are amorphous blobs that evade scrutiny every time we try to observe them closely — this isn’t quantum physics — the real issue comes forth because of the exact opposite:
You can’t but see something in anything you observe attentively.
Symbols really are just neatly assembled and wrapped ideas that were made presentable and therefore intriguing enough to stand out from the crowd of everything else the world has to offer us as far as experiences go.
To be clear, we’re not going to talk exclusively about visual symbols, because the experience and inner workings of symbolic structures are more or less the same regardless if we look at them, hear them or smell them — albeit our focus will be visual arts, because, well, my numbers say most of you lovely souls reading or listening to this are visual artists just like me and evaluations of sheet music just don’t ring as true to us as a nice, juicy-red Barnett Newman painting.
And, I also have to address all of you philosophy and linguistic aficionados: When I say semantics, symbolism (but I never use the term semiotics) — as far as I’m concerned — all three mean more or less the same.
This isn’t due to ignorance, but because semiotics, being the study of symbols, and semantics, being the study of the meanings of words, in the end combine into one, big, splashy field of study.
And that’s exactly where we’re all going today.
Symbolism is to words like water is to rivers; you could have a river of oil or ketchup, but when you read the word river, it’s just more likely that water is going to be involved. The same goes for symbolic structures.
You have non-linguistic symbolism — we will talk about that — but the majority of symbols we encounter in our daily lives that actually do spark our interest (especially our intellectual interests) are all built on language and operate by its rules.
The human mind is a wonderful piece of meaty equipment, especially one part of it, residing somewhere in our prefrontal cortex, that not only makes us the apex predators on the planet (if we do not count the penis fish or Candiru of the Amazonian rainforest — that creature scares me to death), but also gives us the ability to be attentive.
And if you’ve been part of this channel for a while, you know how I love attention and the old myths regarding its importance.
Attention is the cornerstone of the human condition; it’s the starch or agar-agar that holds our fragile whipped cream-like amalgamation of anxiety, fear of death and other basic drivers at reasonable bay and in a homogenous enough shape so that we can (even though nihilism is just a thought away) still enjoy the finer things of life. Like ice cream, art and thinking about things.
Attention is also the basis of how symbolic structures and understandings are formed in our brains; without us being attentive enough, we could never learn the meaning of something and therefore would be forced to uncover meaning in things, people and other phenomena every time we’d encounter them — rather than how it actually works, where we have a basic concept saved somewhere in our meat noodle and use it to manoeuvre through the world.
Take a stop sign for example; it takes attention to be able to focus on a red piece of octagonally-sheet of metal, painted on with four white scribbles of lines, and see a prompt to stop.
It takes even more attention to learn that said collection of red and scribbles is actually a universal prompt that can be found almost all around the world and that every time we encounter it, we have to stop.
Were we not to posses this ability to memorise certain collections of either words, images or even sounds and smells into systems (or to say differently symbols), we would have a panic attack every time we sat in our car, go to the supermarket and probably every time we turned on our tap at home to get a drink of water (especially if your tap is actually a faucet and most likely doesn’t produce clean, drinking water).
Without our ability to think and experience life via symbolic structures, causality would be a cruel and completely foreign mistress indeed.
But, that’s (luckily) not the case.
We do learn to manoeuvre through life via symbolic structures or ideologies, and my favourite example for how symbols work is Beethovens’s 9th symphony — I lied, there will be a bit of sheet music analysis after all — more commonly referred to as The Ode to Joy.
Since its creation, The Ode to Joy has been used by a myriad of different, even contradicting causes, to propagate their ideas. Used by both governments of Nazi Germany and Communist China, by the protesters in Chile, demonstrating against Pinochet and the then ruling class.
It was played at the fall of the Berlin Wall, by christians, buddhists and all sorts of other religions — it was also the theme song of the USSR (old-school talk for communist Russia), picked by Stalin himself.
In short; everybody and their fascist grandma used to relate to that song while just over the border the same tune was played by diehard communists — and now it’s the unofficial hymn of the European Union.
It’s a lot like if the song Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees was used by both sides of any conflict (the concert itself would probably be aired in some neutral country like Switzerland with the speakers faced into the direction of the fighting countries) and just blasted onto the battlefield with everybody, regardless of side, religion or mindset, relating to the same thing; the beauty and sheer amount of grace 3 pairs of airtight trousers can unleash in a society without autotune.
If they only knew what was coming…
While my example is based on music, it works in visual art all the same. There’s a wonderful story someone told in a video somewhere on YouTube (might be Peterson, but it could also be Žižek or any other philosopher/sociologist fond of either lobsters or other people’s toilets, so I couldn’t say for sure):
He said that he owns a portrait of Stalin that he proudly hung on one of the walls in his home. But, being someone that despises the horrific deeds that man was capable of doing, that portrait doesn’t hang there as a token of reminiscence or a symbol of some old, partly-forgotten way.
He keeps it there, because of the sheer fact that he can watch the ideology of the painting slowly crack and fade away.
Meaning; now it might still be a portrait of Stalin, the horrible person, but over time — in 100 or 200 years, when nobody that actually remembers what happened firsthand is alive anymore — he’ll just be another “old important guy on a painting”. Just like the rest of them, probably exhibited in some museum and sorted on the merit of date or technique, not deeds.
He might even be hung next to some old Russian icon of Jesus — when ideology vanishes from people’s hearts and minds, it leaves its products empty and only the technical traits like size, colour, texture, motif and composition stay.
So, ideologies or structures of symbols are empty of meaning when the context is removed form the equation. The only things that stay regardless if a painting is presented inside a religious, political or plain-old white cube context are natural symbols.
Natural symbols, unlike their counterparts — symbols of the artificial variety (sounds like a tittle for a Philip K. Dick novella) — are timeless and non-linguistic. As their name implies, they originate not from any man-made context (like language), but from a wider, much much older context of nature itself.
For example; nature is more than 4 billion years old. People one the other hand have only existed for about a couple of hundred thousands of years — even just a couple of thousands, if we only start counting from the first known formations of civilisations, when a lot of the artificial symbolic systems we all know and love (like the Bible, Koran, Talmud, and other religious texts, that shaped western society) were formed.
But I’m sure all of us that ever spent at least a few hours studying visual art theory (or went to any school, really) are more familiar with a different name, that our field has given to natural symbols: basic artistic elements — or design elements, if you studied design.
There are seven of them, to be exact: line, shape, space, value, form, texture, and colour. Other natural symbols include the second basic assortment of artistic tools, the principles of art or design: unity or harmony, balance, hierarchy, scale or proportion, dominance or emphasis, and similarity or contrast.
All of these basic features that anything in the world (especially in the world of art) has, are not manmade — they are the features around which our perception and interaction with the world evolved.
On the opposite side are artificial symbols; these are all manmade structures, like symbols for love or hate or appreciation. Think of how various differences between cultures (especially the east and west) create an incredibly disparate context around the same symbol, like the O.K. sign.
A gesture where the thumb and index fingers are connected and the rest left to form a kind of mohawk, but with fingers, is more or less known to communicate agreement or content with something; like in Japan, where it means wealth and is therefore a good thing.
But in the Middle East, it usually represents an anus and is meant as an offensive gesture, pointing towards the recipient not only having an anus, but also being one. In Kuwait for example, the same gesture is understood as an evil eye, a course laid on the recipient.
And in places like France it gets even more convoluted, because of the cultural diversity of the country, it can mean both a good and a bad thing to different people. The point to take home is to have ones hands under control when traveling and that artificial symbols — unlike natural ones, that always mean the same thing — depend on their context to give them meaning or their semantic value as it is also called.
And you can also combine natural and artificial symbols together (that’s more or less the majority of all symbolism — an amalgamation of both).
While a line will always be a line and a dot will always be a dot, we can make an amalgamation by drawing two dots and writing “sesame seed” under one of them and “butt hole” under the other. The point is that understanding the difference between natural and artificial symbols is imperative if we wish to help guide our viewers through the labyrinth of experiencing our art.
While of course even the most basic of shapes and colours can become imbued with subjective, extremely personal meanings for some people (winning 100 million Euro in a lottery while being dressed completely in baby blue clothes will leave an imprint on the mind for example), natural symbols usually have similar meanings and offer similar impulses to most people.
But it’s also not impossible to predict how certain groups of people will read a certain artificial symbol either.
Punks will usually see the symbol for anarchy when confronted with the letter A painted onto a wall, but it could just as well be a badly painted logo for a new Avengers movie and Marvel fans will most likely only see that meaning. And many won’t even notice it, because they have no deep relation to the symbol; that’s why some people see something in art, that others don’t. They are just projecting what they think is important to them onto the work they are experiencing.
And that’s also why art is such a wonderful and powerful medium; when confronted with a good, layered and complex work of art, it will eventually show us — just like the mirror in Harry Potter — exactly what we are striving for, whether we like it or not.
Our job as artists therefore is not to produce blindly and unconnected with our environment, but to carefully craft our products in such a fashion that they become part of our zeitgeist — of the now.
Only then can both artificial and natural symbols work in unison, forming a strong and easily legible communications channel with our audience and giving them not only the ability to see what is important to us as creators, but also what is most dear to them.
In the end, we merely facilitate the artistic experience by making art, the viewers are the true artists, creating the artistic experience by immersing themselves into our work and opening up enough to internalise it as part of themselves.