Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 11

Myth and Meaning


I had intended at this point to show an image satirical of the power of the state, a moral and political issue if ever there was one, by the artist known as Banksy, but in a delicious twist of irony I learned that “the use of this image involves quite a few potential legal issues.” I have grave concerns about the so-called permissions culture, and the idea that an image of a picture painted on the side of someone else’s property, which is technically vandalism, cannot be legally or ethically presented in an academic setting, which strikes me as both ridiculous and unseemly.

“The artist must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rests on things unseen,” wrote James Baldwin.1 This brings me to the heart of the matter in my search for meaning. There is a paradox denied by post-modernists–that our paintings are actually about what they show, and also more, that they can reveal a deeper truth. To the post-modernists, everything is fiction. Baldwin also tells us in the same paragraph that “the artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society—the politicians, legislators, educators and scientists—and cannot allow any considerations to supersede his responsibility to reveal all he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being.”2

The second function of myth is serving as a metaphor of spiritual potentiality in the human being. This is distinct from the role of religion in the narrow sense, with its set of symbols, dogma, hierarchies. Once patrons and artists in Western civilization took comfort and drew inspiration from the visual symbols of God, the father and heavenly king; a Messiah who comes helpless, newborn; a Christ who suffers for all humanity; and humanity suffering the hour of its greatest loss. The van Eyck brothers, Gerard David, Matthias Grunewald, Rembrandt and countless other artists created paintings that have endured to remind us of these once potent beliefs. So too, in Africa and Asia, artists employed the skills of visual representation, to remind their audiences that of sacred meaning beyond surface depictions.

Without such a set of symbols representing systems of belief widely accepted, representational artists have resorted to personal devices. In the mid 1990s, Nelson Shanks sent a catalog of his exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to the noted historian of French 19th century painting, Dr. Gerald Ackerman. Dr. Ackerman responded by return letter with praise for the skill in the paintings, but expressed some doubts about content based on a personal system of meaning, or words to that effect. Nelson, however, was confident that he had delivered what he had intended and on his own terms. The question is highly pertinent for representational painters and their choice of subjects in the recent decades of striving to reclaim significance in the eyes of the culture at large. One of Saul Bellow’s great creations, the poet Charlie Citrine, despairs about the debt the artist owes to give something back, “I had the attention of the public for nearly a year, and I taught it nothing.”3

Parable of the Blind, 1568, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-69), Museo di Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy, Bridgeman Images

  1. James Baldwin, “The Creative Process,” The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985 (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 1985, p. 316.
  2. Ibid, p. 316.
  3. Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift,