About ten years ago I pulled a term out of my hat that I used in a statement, and the term was “Social Symbolism.” It just sounded good at the time. I quit using the term since I hadn’t entirely defined just what I’d meant by Social Symbolism. Later a critic in Indianapolis got a hold of it and used in regard to my work, otherwise I might have entirely forgotten about it. But as I reconsidered the term I realized that perhaps I had developed more understanding of exactly what I had been alluding to when I first stumbled upon it, although I think now that a more exact term would be “Societal Symbolism.”
So if I were to define Societal Symbolism, I think I might make a few of the following points:
Societal Symbolism realizes that the constant in art, culture to culture, worldwide, and throughout history, has been the use of symbolism. This symbolism has always been interactive with the mythology of the culture in which it was produced, although not necessarily limited to it. In many ways, it exists at the intersection of the mundane and the fantastic, where gods and men may, or may not, encounter each other on any given occasion.
Societal Symbolism also realizes that our present culture, although politically secular, is not unlike any other in that it does possess a mythological tradition which is interwoven into the development, philosophy, and ideas of our culture. The symbols of the Biblical and of Classical Mythology are referenced very often in popular writings, music, movies, and other forms of art. They may often go unrecognized by many, but they are, nevertheless, there. This is not to be unexpected, as it is, in my opinion, almost impossible for a culture’s artistic product to neglect the already existent symbolic language of itself.
That is basically the definition that I would give to what I was vaguely thinking at the time that I first spit this term up. I realize too the difficulties of this view within the context of contemporary art. Perhaps this view doesn’t belong within that context at all, I don’t know. In our secular society it is difficult to use religious references without some amount of expected resistance. Speaking for myself, I am not a member or advocate of any specific religious group, and I do not use these references with the intent of convincing anyone of anything. When I first began the practice of using Biblical references I was reluctant to do so for fear that I would never escape such a view, but fortunately this reaction has actually been very slight. Rather, I use them because they are very present, and are at the root of our society spiritually, philosophically, and artistically. While any technological or political situation may present the artist with constantly new symbols or reference points, it is Classical literature and popular mythology which accounts for our cultural constants. Furthermore, it is this symbolism which is our link to the fantastic, a world that I don’t want to entirely ascend to, but which I would like to nevertheless recognize as I sit surrounded in the mundane.
As I have already admitted, perhaps this is a view which cannot be justified within the context of critically accepted contemporary art, but I think it worth noting that in the past decade there has been a huge interest in Outsider Art, which is, as you know, really nothing other than the art of the commoner, untrained and not indoctrinated into the accepted progression of acclaimed art. My point is verified, for again we see here in the very honest art of the mass that same cultural symbolism, in this case the Biblical, used without question or justification.
I am not interested in representing events or beliefs of long ago, or in plopping down in the seemingly mysterious, although I admittedly wander nearer to those things than I sometimes admit. But moreover it has been my desire to use the present symbolic language of our culture to attempt to relate thoughts or feelings which are hopefully common. While some altogether dismiss this practice as being an attempt to appear mysterious or as something which is more reactive to past interests than present, it has been my experience that given enough stimuli the viewing public will make something of a representational, although symbolic, work of art. The viewer is no further from the presence of this symbolism than I am.
And so, it is my belief that, whether critically acclaimed or not, societies will always practice some form of what I have here referred to as “Societal Symbolist” – An art which is reactive and interwoven with the already existent language of it’s own most constant symbols.