Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 12

Can Artists Create Myths?


Among the Ruins, 2012, Adam Miller (b. 1979), courtesy of the artist

The painters who have banded together as “Metamodern Classicists” tell us at their eponymous website that they aim to create “an entirely novel mythic system.” Many work with technical skills comparable to the atelier movement. Their concerns expressed verbally are ambitious–indeed, they call on allies as “makers of gods yet unborn.” While I applaud the intent, their claims raise two questions. First, there is the question of creating myths. Myth achieves its power through recognition, through referentiality, through repetition. Can artists create new myths, or do artists reflect the currents of their times? My question reflects the particulars of my own circumstances; I studied literature and theology in depth long before art history. I ask if the role of the artist is perhaps more correctly to use visual means to tell the stories that viewers can recognize, to bring understanding to the conscious mind through the selection of images, form, color, line, and other elements of design.

Along those lines, my second issue is that their pictures are quite literal depictions of their stated concerns–“the apocalyptic dystopia of post industrial society.” People sitting naked on rocks aren’t allegorical yet. Literal means “what you show is what you mean to say.” Allegory works through figuration, creating extended metaphors in which objects, persons and actions are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. To the visual artist it represents a challenge greater than that faced by the writer or poet. The viewer may have to work harder too–taking a deeper look, drawing on diverse images or tales kept in mental reserve–no small feat when we have become accustomed to instant gratification in every venue, another consequence of technology. The late Rudolf Arnheim argued persuasively that “the act of ‘seeing’ or ‘looking’ is not a simple process…Just as the artist toils with his or her own powers to create a work of art, the viewer toils with his or her own powers to ‘see’ a work of art.”1 His argument alerts us to the critical issue: what powers can the representational painter expect the viewer to bring to a work of art?

The Samaritans, 2014, Bo Bartlett (b. 1959), courtesy of the artist

The parable of the Samaritan is a story from the Bible that is widely understood, and we recognize the good Samaritan as someone who helps a stranger. Bo Bartlett’s The Samaritans presents recognizable people and a Mercedes by the sea. He has said, “Whatever feelings I am having, I sublimate them by putting them on the canvas…and the paint holds it. That is the magic of why painting has life. It transubstantiates.”2 Whatever relationship these distinct striking figures have to our idea of a Samaritan is somewhat obscure.

  1. Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception: The New Version, (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1994.
  2. Chuck Williams, “Bo Bartlett: If I don’t have one big painting going, I feel like I’m not sure why I am alive,”, January 3, 2015, accessed October 27, 2015,