… Pervasive in communication, grounded in the very use of language, symbolization is part of the living stuff of social relationships. Western literature is shot through with references which recall to us questions of existence and identity in symbol terms. In an essay on The Poet, Emerson wrote of the universality of the symbolic language: ‘things admit of being used as symbols because nature is a symbol’ (but so is culture) — ‘we are symbols and inhabit symbols.’ In Sartor Resartus Carlyle held that in a symbol there is both concealment and revelation. Oriental writings show analogous views. What is it in such statements that some of us find so attractive? Is it truth or illusion about human personality?
… Marilyn Monroe, labeled one of the greatest sex symbols of her time, is said to have commented that she thought symbols were ‘those things that clashed together.’ Beneath her wit, it may be, lay a sense of how vague such labels of symbol really are.
… for many of us the prime relevance of an anthropological approach to the study of symbolism is its attempt to grapple as empirically as possible with the basic human problem of what I would call disjunction — a gap between the overt superficial statement of action and its underlying meaning. On the surface, a person is saying or doing something which our observations or inferences tell us should not be simply taken at face value — it stands for something else, of greater significance to him.
… [The] classical symbolist view in literature, which had its analog in painting (see later), made two kinds of statements about symbols which in effect challenge much of the anthropological approach to the subject. They asserted the primacy of the private recognition of the symbolic; and they claimed that the referent or reality itself, can be apprehended only through the symbol. An anthropologist is concerned primarily with the public use of the symbolic, and his aim is to separate symbol from referent so that he may describe the relation between them.
… How does one identify an object or an action as symbolic, not only for the interpreter but also for the author of it, when he provides no overt clue? It is an issue which should concern anthropologists more than it has done heretofore. … [A]n anthropologist faced by a problem of identification of private symbols [in real life as opposed to in literature] can ask justification of his attribution because what he observes has consequences.
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… [in the visual arts] study … reveals, in addition to the rich and fascinating content and system of thought involved, a couple of points of more methodical interest. One is the quest for symbols which obviously operated in the Middle Ages as it does today — a search for some concrete representation of what is not evident to the senses but is felt to be of prime meaning. The other point is the difficulty of symbolic transfer — of ensuring that the object created or selected by one person as a symbol is identified by other persons as having the same meaning. This difficulty is increased when even though the creator of the symbol deliberately set it up as such, he is long since dead and no check can be made of the inferences as to his intentions. And it exists in another form when the imputation is of unconscious symbolism, which needs most careful collateral evidence to justify. It is evident that medieval painters and sculptors meant more by their work than just illustration; this is clear from the bestiaries and from contemporary theological writings. But whether our modern interpretations of the clerics actually conform to what the artists and craftsmen meant, seems often to be an open question.
… Developments in the twentieth century became even more complex as attention focused more strongly on the significance of other than purely descriptive or ‘naturalistic’ values in art. In Britain a philosophic note was struck by R.G. Collingwood, who in traditional idiom saw art as the pursuit of beauty, which he defined as imaginative coherence, but regarded this coherence as qualitatively different from the coherence of an object of thought. It was in his view an immediate or intuitive awareness of relations between parts of the object, involving a ‘symbolic vision’ which is a ‘premonition’ of the truth explicitly reached by science and philosophy.
… there is the conception of symbolization as a process of reference, not to objects of the external world as ordinarily perceived, but to some other reality — whether in the mind of the artist, in that of the observer, or in the innate quality of existence in general. And cutting through such categorizations are the efforts of some modern artists to avoid all symbolization whatever, to present their creative effort as a direct confrontation with experience, in the attempt to provoke a dynamic reaction and change the situation. ‘In proportion as the artist is pure, he is opposed to all symbolism,’ wrote Roger Fry. Yet even abstract painting, while rejecting the traditional symbolism of conventional representational art, acquired a symbolic value in the quality of the response evoked in the viewer. Though it may be claimed that non-objective art has broken through the process of symbolization itself by confronting the viewer with a ‘direct experience’ of the forces involved in the creation of the painting, this claim has proved hard to maintain in its entirety. The language of identification with creative forces of nature in which some exponents of abstract art clothed their arguments; the influence of systems of mystical thought on some abstract painters (for example the theosophy of Kandinsky and Mondrian); the attempt to give personal significance to formal structures — this has tended to involve symbolic forms of expression at some stage. Michel Seuphor states that to Mondrian femininity is symbolized by the vast horizontal receptacle of the sea; masculinity is symbolized by the wooden pilings against which the waves break and which protect the dunes from the sea.
… Even where it is held that the conformations of non-objective art are ‘symbolic only of themselves,’ and the term ‘metasymbolic’ has been introduced to discuss their achievement in analytical style, it has been argued that what has been involved has been a spiritual revolution, and ‘the history of the destruction of the outer world of appearance signifies a gradual spiritualization of art, for it leads to ever more symbolic statements.’ In an early statement on the issues Herbert Read distinguished between symbolism in the ordinary sense, employing concrete imagery, and symbolism which employs abstractions without parallel in visual experience and operates by unconscious or intuitive process. One of the most articulate movements of this last type, surrealism, made an endeavor to utilize a dialectical process of artistic activity opposing conscious and unconscious, reason and unreason, deed and dream.
… There are two significant points in all this. One is that for the most part the creative symbolism of these art forms has been implicit, not explicit; the process of exploration, identification and labelling of symbolic patterns has often been done by observers and interpreters, unacknowledged by and often unknown to the artists concerned. Secondly, when such symbolic pattern has been recognized in their work, it has been part of the modern canon to claim for it a clearer autonomy, a greater dignity in the aesthetic scene. Symbolic statement has tended to be viewed as preferable to realistic statement because, it is argued, it is capable of conveying more general and more profound meanings.
Problems of the relation of private symbols to public symbols are raised especially in such art. How does the individual vision of the artist become translated into the set of symbols which win public acceptance? Does art arise from a fundamental paradox — the equal insistence on the creative effort of an individual, and on the capability of his product to be recognized and accepted by a body of other individuals — a public? Does the artist’s belief that he alone must be the ultimate judge of the validity of his effort mask a parallel belief that only if the result of his effort is acceptable to some other individual can he himself accept it as valid?
A great range of views opens up here. If the artist sees art as basically a means of communication he obviously must try for a code by which what he has to ‘say,’ that is paint or sculpt, can be interpreted by those to whom he wishes to communcate.
… [If not, then] The artist says in effect: interpret the painting in your own way, in terms of your own experience, let the combinations of line, mass and color convey their own message to you — or more strictly, let them suggest to you some stirring of the sensibilities which will make for you a cognizable experience, an ‘event.’ Symbolic meaning in the more figurative sense is not expected — may be even denied. There is a belief in a direct relation between the physical object and the appreciation of the viewer so that the forms of the painting do not ‘stand for’ something else than themselves. They are expected to evoke reaction without the mediation of other images. According to the fashionable ‘structuralist’ phraseology, the art forms ‘mediate’ directly, in a primary way, between the raw impulse-phenomena of human nature and the culturally defined position of the spectator. There is also a further attempt to reduce the importance of the material art object, in favor of the mental image — hence ‘conceptual art,’ ‘minimal art,’ ‘hyper-realism’ and other varieties of concern to obliterate as far as possible the humanist elements in art.
But as I see it, the artist is not in fact eliminated as interpreter. It is recognized that we are confronted by a personal aesthetic of the artist. And even in the most advanced fields of modern art there is still curiosity on the part of art critics and public as to what the artist ‘intended’ by the work. The artist himself often shows no particular reticence in explaining what he has meant to do, sometimes in naïve theoretical terms.