Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 9


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….[J]ust 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.

Passengers, 2008, Steven Assael (b. 1957), courtesy the artist and Forum Gallery

Fallen Groom, 2015, Steven Assael (b. 1957), courtesy the artist and Forum Gallery

Steven Assael works allegorically. “Passengers describes a metaphorical journey between new and old civilizations, between the present and the past,” James F. Cooper informed us in the Newington-Cropsey Foundation’s American Arts Quarterly 26(3). The monkeys here are personifications of the distraction that the soul must conquer. In November 2015, Forum Gallery opened a show with Assael’s latest work pondering the nature of preparation and transformation. At one point working on this series of paintings, Assael made an oblique reference to the New Testament parable of the wise and foolish virgins, or bridesmaids in some retelling. The New King James Version tells it thus:

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight a cry was heard: “Behold, the bridegroom is coming! Go out to meet him!” Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise answered, saying, “No, lest there should not be enough for us and you.”

After describing the foolish virgins’ unsuccessful attempts to purchase oil in the market, the parable concludes with the warning: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.”3 It is certainly a sign of the times that very few people recognize the story, which reminded its listeners of the necessity of keeping ready for revelation.

What Have We Done to Angels, 1993-1996, Nelson Shanks (1937-2015), Collection of Jena and Michael King, courtesy of the Estate of Nelson Shanks

To me, What Have We Done to Angels by Nelson Shanks works as an allegory because the artist took an object visually charged with meaning imbued by centuries of understanding, and used it in a composition such that we can see what he intends. He meant to show the price paid when we ignore the higher state of being, once described as angels, for reasons of expedience. It is not necessary to know or agree with the Christian tradition to grasp the meaning of the dove figure created with the knot of the string. The lift of its wings signifies hope.

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

  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,
  3. Matthew 25:1-13.