Icons, Symbols and Art
©1990, 1999, 2006 Black Prairie Dog Woman Studios
Originally an excerpt from Jesse Can You Read My Lips 
an integral part of the art piece Jesse’s Girl

Margery Coffey

Human beings communicate through use of symbols, a primary symbol system being language. Sounds and groupings of sounds have come to represent, within tribal boundaries, both abstract and concrete thoughts. Native American nations were quite successful in developing signing with hand gestures reaching beyond tribal tongues. Smoke signals and drumbeats were their long distance communication structures built on symbols, all of these  methods were universally used on this planet.

The written word we use today is based upon symbols. Simple pictures were refined to marks that stood for an image, then for sounds that, when put together, formed an agreed upon idea of a word. This is the abstract defined visually.

We use such traditional symbols constantly in our daily lives. Some of us are fluent in many symbols within our own territorial language, while others collect symbols from many other locales. Most of us make do with a limited amount of symbols within our own culture. With the possible exception of parents and teenagers, we are in harmony on the meanings of our everyday symbols. There are, of course, variations within agreed meanings. When the word FLOWER is used, for instance, one person may think DAISY and another ROSE but they both understand the concept FLOWER.

Communication problems arise when symbols are mixed or used in untraditional fashion. With many languages we have the ultimate source to consult for clarification: the DICTIONARY. This official book is, of necessity, constantly changing in order to keep abreast with a living language that is evolving as it grows through the usage and experiences of the people who speak it, but, such revisions come slowly.  However, such tomes only exist for written languages.  There are many languages that have no dictionary.

The Fine Arts are also premised on use of symbols. Music has its own alphabet in addition to a set of tools to produce its speech whether it be dance, song or instrument. Theatre, books, lyrics, poems and storytelling rely on the spoken and written word already agreed upon for their structure. Visual art alone is a vehicle of symbols with a long tradition of broken rules and mixed usages with no dictionary to arbitrate disputes. Being visual, this art form transcends territory and challenges custom.

Because Art (like music) can reach beyond language, it runs into sharp likes and dislikes. Oriental Music, for example, sounds so strange to the ears of a Western music fan, it is often declared to be NON-MUSIC, while parents of teenagers within a similar culture have denounced rock and roll as a form of non-music now for almost four decades.  Rap music is also a generation controversy.

Abstraction is non-art to those who love Norman Rockwell's paintings. While the various schools of art vie for a brief spot of popularity in the contemporary marketplace, non-western art is at even greater variance with the TRADITIONAL EURO-AMERICAN ART WORLD, especially if it is modern or not of great antiquity. Women experience an additional level of bias and active discrimination no matter which culture gives rise to their works.

Visual art does not always translate well among varying societies. Color, for instance, means different things symbolically to different cultures. In Western tradition, the color black is a sign of mourning while in China, the color of grief is white and in Southeast Asia, it is yellow. The Fauves and Expressionists limited their art works to Western audiences, at the turn of the century, by using their colors symbolically.

Nowhere does Art come in more vehement conflict with its critics than when it touches upon traditional icons for its expression. Jasper Johns took the American Flag and Andy Warhol chose Marilyn Monroe for their artistic comments on the icons of the 20th Century. If controversial for their day, they did produce Fine Art. 

Robert Mapplethorpe crossed the line for some people when he photographed the human body doing taboo forms of sexual interaction. Andres Serrano's photograph of a crucifix in a vial of urine was even more offensive to the Christian world. New York City’s Mayor Rudy Guiliani tried unsuccessfully to shut down the Brooklyn Art Museum in reaction to Chris Ofilis black Madonna decorated with elephant dung.

What these three artists did, was to cross the forbidden lines of perceived social symbols to create a new way of looking at things. For this is the heart of visual Fine Art: the novel use of traditional images to provoke a thought process in the viewer -- art provokes thinking. True art always elicits a response from the viewer. No one, not even the artists, insists that this response has to be positive.  Bad art is simply ignored.

The question today is whether Fine Art has a right experimentally to take the icons of a religion or government to play and examine them in exploration. Is this artistic right one that violates the right of religion to be practiced and examined freely? NO. Religion is an organization premised on theological concepts for the explanation of spiritual beliefs and experiences. Icons are a representation of such beliefs but are not the experiences themselves. 

Just as flags may represent a particular form of government for a specific people or territory, it is NOT the people nor the government nor the land. It is merely a piece of cloth. Because one group identifies an icon with one meaning does not imply that everyone of that society perceives this icon in the same way. For the patriotic zealot, a flag is a precious symbol of the Perfect Life; to a dissenter, it is a symbol of barbarous practice done in the name of all for the profit of a few. 

For the ardent Christian, the crucifix is a symbol of God's promise to the faithful of eternal life; for the non-Christian, it is a symbol of mindless persecution and bloodletting throughout the world with a history that spans many centuries of active cultural and racial genocide. 

So adamant are the Euro-American Christians that their dominant symbols are of European looks in spite of their Judean roots, that making a picture of their Virgin Mary as a black woman is crossing a line.  This, in spite of the fact that many non-white Christians worship a black Madonna. The adding of elephant dung as a fertility symbol just added to the furor.

The fact that an unknown self-styled critic "white washed" the painting in the Brooklyn Museum only proves the point that the painting was perceived as a racial threat far more than as offensive by the use of unorthodox organic material in the execution of the piece.

For the Fine Arts Artist who uses visual symbols to provoke critical thought, symbols carry both positive and negative meanings; when combined with other symbols, it creates artistic visions of abstract realities.

To limit the artist's usage of symbols in new and provocative ways, is to limit the freedom of thought, feeling and expression. When a society agrees to do this, it has agreed to eliminate art and critical thinking. If the only art to be accepted is that which it is presumed everyone has a common perception upon its meaning and form (even if the opposite is, in fact, true), then, one might as well close all galleries, museums and dismantle all private collections so that the only art available is purchased through the dime stores. There you will find icons and symbols that do not challenge thought or assumed realities.

When a society restricts creativity at the cultural boundaries of artistic growth and thought, one also restrains inventiveness in problem solving on the drawing boards of institutions, corporations and governments. Originality is a fragile thing. It needs to be nurtured and encouraged, not attacked. Without imagination, a society becomes moribund and dies in a stew of its own juices. Fine art is the leading edge of all creativity. When it flourishes a culture thrives. When it dies, then, the entire society shrivels and withers away.

To create a viable future, a people must have vision. To presume a vision without the use of the Fine Arts is to communicate without sound, picture or touch. The visual arts especially are needed to invent visions as they exist solely to take conceptual thought and make it real. Changing thought into action through the use of images is the unique territory of the visual artist. Just as all thinking is at variance, so too are all visions. To eliminate the bad thoughts or bad visions is a subjective decision. While we may reach cultural consensus in what the meaning of the words "acceptable" or "offensive" are, we are never in societal agreement when applying it to a specific. Even motherhood and apple pie are debatable.

When an artist challenges our preconceived notions about sex, religion or patriotism, it is time for us to reexamine the meaning of these symbols in our culture as well as in our own personal lives. Artists, like everyone, do not live in a vacuum; we are all in touch with a portion of the world in which we all share. If artists envision an idea that is negative, then usually it will be true that a fair number of people will look at this view and identify with it. To squelch the artist and deny the reality of perceived vision is an act of suppression. 

Suppression and democracy are incompatible. Freedom means one has the right to create a male nude holding a picture of a black madonna while pissing on a crucifix that is lying on a flag covered with elephant dung. Freedom also means one does not have to either look at it or buy it. But, freedom does NOT mean that one has the right to deny another's artistic freedom, Just as an artist does not have the right to close churches, patriotic legion halls or to forbid clothes.

Then, why, as a taxpayer, should our money be used to support ideas with which some do not believe in or agree? Because, when we pay taxes to a free democratic government, the moneys may be used in ways that many people may not agree. One may choose to support freedom in the arts and still not want the government to use the military or inflict the death penalty. Pacifists are forced to act against their religious beliefs by the government when their taxes are used to support war, preparations for war or killing of any kind. But until tax moneys are allowed to be ear-marked to go only to practices that the individual taxpayer favors, they will continue to be placed in a general fund where it is divided among all the commonly-agreed-upon projects by our elected officials -- whether or not an individual taxpayer voted for the political office holder -- this is, after all, a democracy.

Freedom does not mean the supporting of the most popular feelings or beliefs. Freedom as defined by the United States Constitution means the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for ALL. One has the right to push their point of view. One has the right to ignore another's point of view. One has the right to hotly debate any point of view. One does not have the right to inhibit another's right to express objection to a point of view. That right is guaranteed by the First Amendment (the right of Free Speech) to the Constitution of the United States. ANY restriction on that right is not liberty, nor creative life and the pursuit of happiness. It is dictatorship.

History shows that the Fine Arts do very well under freedom and very poorly when repressed. Some of the contemporary arts are a mere flash-in-the-pan and will soon be lost to obscurity, while other art rises slowly from the populous into historical prominence. It is not always possible for a society within its times to predict which art is which. Remember, Vincent Van Gogh did not sell even one painting in his lifetime. Therefore, in a free marketplace of ideas, it is necessary to allow all art so that time will be able to select the truly Fine Art, not popular icons, fads nor current prejudices. 

However, just as Freedom of Speech does not include yelling "fire" in a crowded theatre, deliberately defiling of an icon in order to enflame an entire group of people is something we need to consider carefully.  The publishing of negative cartoons of icons in a world situation where war is already being fought on religious grounds among others is not the brightest thing to do.  Especially when that religion traditionally has a restriction upon portraiture of any kind.  Then one has to ask why a publisher would ask an artist to create deliberately offensive work.   Is the responsibility that of the artist who has been asked by his/her employer or the publisher that publishes such work in order to sell newspapers?  The fault here is not the artist but the publishing world.  This is not the first time a newspaper has set out to start a war, William Randolph Hearst did his best to enflame the sentiments for the Spanish American War.  This is why art should be left to the artist's discretion and not be maliciously used for private agendas and newspapers should stick with reporting the news and not creating it.

Art is, what the artist says it is. 
                                                                                             --  Marcel Duchamp, 1887-1968

All else makes a profit for Southebys and Christies.




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