Posts Tagged ‘art’

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Ushangi: The Sculptor in Silence

July 1, 2012

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Located between Museum Row and Melrose, up-the-way from Farmer’s Market, and across from CBS, you may find a very, very old rock. However, to describe it as an ordinary rock would be inaccurate. It is not mixed with tar and oil holding the streets of neighborhood together, and it is not what you would find walking in the local hills to peer across the ocean. Nor is it the ten million dollar rock being installed at LACMA. Rather, it is a unique rock, with its soul revealed, its song let loose, and its heart etched free from earthly bounds.

Standing beside this rock, you will find another stranger in this neighborhood, Ushangi, the sculptor. Born in the old Soviet Union, the story of Ushangi’s immigration to the United States for creative freedom is not nearly as interesting as what he has done with that achieved liberation. Unhindered by politics, set free from culture, and mixed with an immense amount of open American country, Ushangi has found a balance between the venerable earth and the yawning sky.

When you enter Ushangi’s new studio, paintings cover the walls and sculptures stand in attendance. Within these images, mythological stories, archetypal portraits, and personal narrative meet in conversation. Color and mood mix to create scenes set in open spaces. Key to Ushangi’s work is his use of voice and silence. In each piece, there is an important story, but there is also a place of silence, an abyss of reflection.

Whether Ushangi is carving the hidden figure free from stone, pulling a new dimension from blank canvas, or teaching a class of students how to see and create, the relationship between form and emotion is examined. Color, texture, shape, and shadow are key to Ushangi’s immense amount of work. Although his style, content, and material may be varied, the underlying questions remain true to his experience of the world as a sculptor; Ushangi’s goal is to reveal what is hidden within the rock of our own eyes.

While there are countless young artists co-habiting the studios, exhibitions, and museums within the same radius, Ushangi stands separate; partly because of his classical training and cultural roots, partly because of his mature age and international recognition, but mostly because of his humor and unabashed curiosity. Ushangi draws emotional breath from stone. He does not try to create an identity for himself or for others. Rather, he strives to reveal the authentic soul, song and heart that are already there.

www.ushangi.com

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Postcultural Identity and the Fashion Photography of Lillian Bassman

June 10, 2011

Born in 1917, Lillian Bassman is most celebrated for her grainy, black and white photographic work. Featured in Harper’s Bazaar Magazine between 1950-1965, her work with models focused on high contrasts and form. Her creative objective focused on pure form. However, when popular tastes in fashion photography changed, Bassman discarded 40 years of negatives and prints. One misplaced bag of 100 images survived. Today, Bassman is recognized as one of the great women fashion photographers and is still working.

Throughout the 20th century, the world of fashion has had a contentious evolution. Both celebrated for it’s aesthetics and criticized for its bourgeoisie decadence, fashion remains one of the most popular and common forms of cultural representation. In this instance, culture is defined as the attitude and behavior characteristics of a particular social group. While it is easy to comment that the attitude reflected in fashion is the starvation of culture, this reduction is a bit too easy.

Existentialism rose from the ruins of two world wars and set the stage for surrealism, deconstruction, and post-modernism. Through the knowledge of mass destruction and global culpability, the question of meaning was desperately explored within the realms of art, religion, philosophy, and other representations of cultural identity. Deconstruction destabilized meaning, but also provided an almost religious assuredness that the center is never stable. As if this instability assured a conceptualization of existence beyond the ability of humans—the religious function of the psyche found an outlet through the labors of theory.

However, while existentialism, or the quest for meaning, has been simultaneously nihilistic and the origin of great creativity, there is another factor that has shaped the last 100 years—globalization. The great American experiment has now passed the two hundred year mark and cultures have now been, not only blended, but forgotten. The fusion of races, traditions, and languages have created a clean palate to adopt and discard the trappings of culture. Americans can be everything or nothing in a simple change of the wardrobe.

In this example, we are going to be looking at Postculturalism as a theory directly related to globalization. In a community set in a densely cultural environment the traditions, expectations, and socio-economic positions have been established over hundreds (if not thousands of years). An individual is not introduced as someone who has existed within one lifetime, rather they are recognized as the son, or daughter, of thus and thus person, who is in turn related to another individual. Everyone is family, the community dictates behavior, and history is remembered.

In Postculturalism, the socio-economic boundaries are broken enabling more opportunity. The lack of a genealogical introduction enables quick movement between economic classes. However, it also means the deterioration of expectations and lifestyle. The concept of the lifespan as shared within a community follows set rituals. Whether that knowing the time to eat during the day, the season to eat ice cream, or the rites of passage into different epochs, the expectations are clearly available. This availability serves a psychological objective in providing a known framework, a system of initiation, and a guide for interactions. In contrast, a Postcultural society must either cull customs from a variety of backgrounds, or, more like, is left to find a framework from a system unrelated to culture—which is usually nestled closely to capitalism.

Leading us back into the phenomenon of fashion photography. Photography has served many functions since it’s invention. Ranging from a bureaucratic tool to high art, photography is both a method and a form of expressionism. In the case of fashion photography, the line between commercialism and art is often blended. The goal of fashion is to sell clothes. To sell clothes, there must be a reason to buy clothes. Fashion is not utilitarian and is fueled by desire. Clothes are a traditional expression of culture and personal identity. Our industry within a community is recognized by what we wear (butcher, baker, candlestick maker), and likewise an individual with the finest clothes is more important than an individual with poorer accessories. We all desire quality in life, and clothes are symbolic of our goals and achievements.

However, in a Postcultural society identity is not established through a cultural history. Which makes fashion an extremely necessary outlet for defining individual identity. A person who is in fashion, has more economic resources, and is therefore identified as being more significant within the social hierarchy. However, fashion is not just branding, it is the artistic development of “looks.” Here is where photography becomes more than a tool for communicating merchandise. The creative aspects of fashion photography create a scene that the viewer desires to identify with. The reenactment, or interaction, with changing fashions is one method to create a persona where prior content does not limit possibilities.

In looking at the photography of Lillian Bassman, we must question the appeal, but also the challenges of her images. Her photography is intensely interested in form, geometry, and high-grainy contrast. When we look at her images, we are looking through a window into another world. The world is attractive, but deeply psychological. The narrative is complex and not always neat. The extreme black and white contrast does not compromise in communicating emotion, tension, and intrIgue. The content that Bassman conveys works within the forum of fashion photography, but the physical identities that she designs convey more about our interior landscapes. Her emphasis on form took her into creative realms that the fashion content was unable to follow. Leading her to find other forums of expression outside of the industry, but also establishing her legacy as a fashion photographer who had much to say to an audience unprepared to listen.

This is a link to Lillian Bassman’s photography as featured in the New York Times.

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The Symbolic Function of Color in the Art of Joan Miró

June 8, 2011

The symbolic vocabulary of color has many different languages. These languages allow the voyeur to understand their experience of art and the world within a variety of contexts. Color is a vocabulary of communication as well as a process of creating. It can be understood through techniques of degree, but also articulated as modes of emotion in the lexicon of psychology. The relationship between color and symbol is particularly strong in the work of Joan Miró.

The question of how to interpret art, literature, music, politics, and basically everything is one that has been postulated, revised, and argued for millennia. Strategies focusing on form, content, source, and context are all relevant and successful methods for extrapolating meaning from experience and creation. There is interpretation that happens on a personal level and works within the context of an individual’s unique world of perspective, and then there is interpretation that is formulated in an aesthetic vocabulary that interacts with critical conversations taking place within a larger community. Though different in their origin, both personal and critical processes begin from a point of engaged response. The piece of art must create a unique experience. How this experience is interpreted within a given context becomes the grand debate.

The discussion of art on a personal level is directly connected to the therapeutic arts and may often be a guided strategy. The inner world of the individual is projected onto an external object to reveal metaphors that are challenging the development or health of the psyche. Once externalized the collective symbology of the art may be researched, concretizing internal abstract concepts into a visual vocabulary. While this description is brief and reductionary, the process is intended to be organic and address both personal experiences and archetypal dynamics. Symbols contain both personal and collective meaning, or relevance.

In contrast, a critical or aesthetic discussion of art focuses on an understanding of that those participating in the conversation have an understanding of what has been said in the past, how it has been said, and why it was or is no longer relevant. Critical interpretation accesses jargon specific to the medium, within the realms of both technique and content. Symbolism that is found in archetypes, geometry, color, and numerology all play a role within formal interpretations. In his book, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary, Terry Bennett summarizes the principles of interpretation. These principles our listed below, however central to the action of interpretation is that the piece of art demands an interpretation and that feelings are the guide. Whether the feelings are understood as a collective or personal analytical process depends on the forum.

This relationship between feeling, interpretation, and symbolism is particularly visible in the art of Catalan artist Joan Miró. Born in 1893 Barcelona, Miró was a part of the surrealist and Spanish Civil War Parisian ex-patriot communities. However, while his work has often been interpreted as Surrealism, he resisted being defined as a Surrealist artist. His objective was to “assassinate art” or to break from the historical interpretation of what art is, or should be. Being labeled as a Surrealist would work would limit his ability to explore new territory, methods, and forms of expression.

While Miró resists categorical interpretation, throughout his work he asks questions. These questions take the form of color and technique and meditate on what the symbol has to say within a set amount of space. Specifically, Miró worked with strategies such as automatic drawing (where the hand is allowed to move freely as an extension of the unconscious), Surrealism (which philosophically strove to reveal authentic thought through juxtaposing unexpected symbols and forms), Expressionism (which applies emotional subjectivity to evoke moods or ideas), and Color Field Painting (that meditated on combinations, and or fields of color symbology). While each of these methods is accompanied and motivated by methods of critical thought, Miró’s resistance to one mode of exposition is consistent.

Which leads us to ask, just how does Miró want his body of art to be understood?

If we take away interpretation, what is left? Experience. What is the experience of viewing Miró’s art? Does this experience change? How can this experience remain active? How does one assassinate this historical concept of art? By striving to avoid classification, and by engaging the imagination.

Personnage EtoileFor example, what is the experience of viewing his 1978 painting “Personnage Etoile”? In English the title is translated as Star Person, or Star Character. On an abstract textured field of bright sky blue, minimalistic symbols work together and disjointedly to engage the imagination. Circle, star, curve, red, yellow, what is the message? Is the blue the color of the Madonna? Does it relate to Haitian Santeria, or is it inspired by the expansive Mediterranean beyond the walls of Miró’s studio? In his theory of Deconstruction, Derrida argues that the experience of deconstruction is as if, while following the inward curve of a fixed point toward a center, we suddenly find that the center has moved elsewhere. The spiral is destabilized and the interpretation is disoriented. Likewise, the experience of Miró’s “Personnage Etoile” provides just enough information to stimulate the process of interpretation, but the same stimulation resists conclusions and continues to evoke questions.

Through the interpretive resistance of Miró’s artwork we are better able to witness our own processes of interpretation for what they are, reflections and projections of who we are—internally and as a community. And what we find is that who we are is just as unresolved as the image that we meditate upon.

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Barrett’s Principles of Interpretation:

  • Artworks have “aboutness” and demand interpretation.
  • Interpretations are persuasive arguments.
  • Some interpretations are better than others.
  • Good interpretations of art tell about the critic.
  • Feelings are guides to interpretations.
  • There can be different, competing, and contradictory interpretations of the same work.
  • Interpretations are often based on a worldview.
  • Interpretations are not so much absolutely right, but more or less reasonable, convincing, enlightening, and informative.
  • Interpretations can be judged by coherence, correspondence, and inclusiveness.
  • An artwork is not necessarily about what the artist wanted it to be about.
  • A critic ought not to be the spokesperson for the artist.
  • Interpretations ought to present the work in its best rather than its weakest light.
  • The objects of interpretation are artworks, not artists.
  • All art is in part about the world in which it emerged.
  • All art is in part about other art.
  • No single interpretation is exhaustive of the meaning of an artwork.
  • The meanings of an artwork may be different from its significance to the viewer.
  • Interpretation is ultimately a communal endeavor, and the community is ultimately self-corrective.
  • Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and to continue on our own.

Barrett, T. (1994). Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company

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Man Ray: Nude Dialectics

June 7, 2011

The Dada movement was founded on anti-war politics and was a direct response to the established standards and manifested these ideas by responding to accepted concepts of art with the creation of anti-art cultural works. The goal was to reveal meaning it what was being discarded as meaningless in the modern world.

Continuing after WWI, Surrealism evolved from original Dada manifestation. Defined by Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, Surrealism is:

Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

The concept of Surrealism was explored in photography, art, film, literature, music, and continually addressed the question of what is conscious and unconscious, often with strong socio-political themes. Deconstruction and Post-Modernism are descendents from Dada and Surrealist thought.

Writing in the 19th century, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a philosopher whose approach has been critical to the course of 20th century thought. Hegel asserted that there is an original argument, a Thesis. This Thesis automatically generates an opposing argument, the |Antithesis. The interaction between Thesis and Antithesis bring forth a third, and new idea called the Synthesis. Furthermore, the foundation for Hegelian Dialectics is developed from four concepts:

  1. Everything is transient and finite, existing in the medium of time.
  2. Everything is composed of contradictions (opposing forces).
  3. Gradual changes lead to crises, turning points when one overcomes its opponent force (quantitative change leads to qualitative change).
  4. Change is helical (spiral), not circular (negation of the negation).

Dialectical reasoning has been a central strategy for communicating philosophical challenges since it’s conception. As a written strategy, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis are a familiar framework for essays. Likewise, there are reverberations in art, literature, music, etc.

However, just as the structure of Dialectics argues for an antithesis, so is there a counter-response to this approach. Though acutely articulated in Derrida’s theory of Deconstruction and in the Post-Modern exploration of film and literature, there is a unique space in the early twentieth century where the conception of an antithesis to Dialectics is being visualized adjacent to it’s origin.

Photographer Man Ray was born in Philadelphia in 1890. Arriving in Paris between WWI and WWII, Man Ray was a central figure in the practice and philosophy of Surrealism. Central to the socio-political experience of Europe during this period is the question of how to live in a world after the devastation of war. Not only the destruction of infrastructures, but the knowledge that that destruction was generated and enabled by the continental communities. The horrors of war could not withstand cultural boundaries. All types of hell were made possible by the hands of man.

First Dada and then Surrealism emerged as expressionist responses to this new psychological realization. Dada is a Dialectical response to being the anti-war to war, and the anti-art to traditional art. The emphasis on automatism in Surrealism opens the discussion to both cultural and personal exploration. Automatism is defined as the performance of actions without conscious thought or intention. If war is the strategic plan to conquer, divide, and/or destroy, than surrealism is the unconscious response. But, unlike Dada, this response is not obviously anti-war (or peace). Though consciousness and unconsciousness are practically a dialectic opposition, their content does not necessarily follow the same rules. What is found in the unconscious may be better explored through the process of Dialectics, but it resists definition, categorization, or compartmentalization.

A visual example of this is seen in Man Ray’s photographs “Le nu en photographie,” or “Two Nudes” composed in 19 37. In this image we see two nudes, one facing the viewer the other with her back to the audience looking into the distance. The portraits are not mirror images, but the juxtaposition of a light and dark background establish that the images are linked, representing united, but contrasting concepts. Black is the antithesis to white and vice versa. Put them together and the visual contrast creates an experience that is not achieved when viewed separately.

Likewise, one nude faces forward, the other showing her back. This is another example inviting a Dialectic comparison. Though, here is where it becomes clear that this strategy is being intentionally broken. While the black-white backgrounds and poses lead the interpreter toward their familiar Thesis, there are several factors that disorient this process. Almost mirror images of each other, the differences in poses convey different messages. The lighted nude faces forward, intimately meeting the eyes of her audience; Her arm is raised to reveal her breasts and the curve of her figure. She is fully conscious of her physicality and allurement. The second nude shows her back to the viewer and looks into the darkness. Her figure is highlighted, but it is not being displayed for an audience. Both arms are lowered and her focus is unknown.

A simple interpretation would read this as the lighted nude represents what is conscious and the darkened nude is the unconscious. However, Man Ray’s technique of inducing photographic polarities deconstructs the obvious. The light nude is highlighted in black; the black nude is highlighted in white. Each nude displays characteristics of the unconscious and conscious. The direct sexuality of the first is generated in the primal ID, clearly nestled in the unconscious. The reflective gaze into darkness implies active cognition. Though the initial invitation is to define each woman as being black or white, conscious and unconscious, this Dialectic interpretation is destabilized the more one participates in the portraits as a conversation between opposites. The more one tries to define the images—both technically and symbolically, the more impossible it becomes to reduce the images to a single narrative.

Man Ray’s photograph, “Le nu en photographie” (“Two Nudes”), is an example of how Dada and Surrealism struggled with the strictures of Dialectic thought in the 20th century. It is an exemplification of an experience that is both defined by opposites and irreconcilable to being pruned into familiar and rational forms.

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Political Rites: Initiating Art

October 3, 2009

In recent news, the New York Times reports: “Possible Nazi Theme of Grand Prix Boss’s Orgy Draws Calls to Quit” (www.nytimes.com, 4/7/08). Having read only twelve words I know that this article is not entertaining gossip, but challenging theory. What is a Nazi Theme? Is it possible to combine Nazism with Orgies? Is this an article about social or personal psychology? Beyond the title, the article proves even more provocative. The “Grand Prix Boss” is also Max Mosley, the “younger son of Britain’s 1930’s fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, and the society beauty Diana Mitford, whose secret wedding in Berlin in October 1936 was held at the home of the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels and included Hitler as a guest of honor.”  Immediately, without any details of what occurred at the actual “orgy,” it is easy to conclude that the “Nazi Theme” is Mr. Mosley himself, who was finally caught revealing his true fascist nature. However, the presumptive response is shortsighted and relies on the same reductionist theory of essence that led to the persecution of the Jews during the Third Reich. Details of the orgy as provided by the New York Times include:

[T]wo of the women wore black-and-white striped robes in the style of prisoners’ uniforms. The video showed Mr. Mosley counting in german –“Eins! Zwei! Drei! Vier! Funf!”-as he used a leather strap to lash one of the women.“She needs more of ze punishment!” he cried in German-accented English. One woman appeared to search his hair for lice, while another called off items on an inspection list. Mr. Mosley, naked, was bound facedown and lashed more than 20 times.

This is all the evidence the newspaper provides to inform the public of how Mr. Mosley’s orgy was “Nazi Themed.” Where are the uniforms? Swastikas? Salutes? The session (as relayed by the New York Times) incorporates sadomasochistic behavior with limited German language, prisoner uniforms, and prison role-playing.

In defense of his behavior, Mr. Mosley argues “he spoke German during the sex-and-bondage session because two of the women involved were Germans, not to engage in Nazi role playing.” In addition, he also states “the garb worn by the women was ‘American convict uniforms,’” and as dismissing the Nazi allegations by saying, “The scenario was more Alcatraz than Auschwitz.”  In addition, it is important to note that all the behavior was legal and consensual. While there is no question that Mr. Mosley participated in a sadomasochistic orgy, there are doubts as to whether or not the orgy had a “Nazi Theme.” Here is the critical point of departure, where tabloid revelations become theoretical debates. In Susan Sontag’s 1974 essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” she discusses the appeal of fetishizing SS Regalia (which is without doubt a “Nazi Theme”):

[T]he perennial Englishman in a brothel being whipped is re-creating an experience. He is paying a whore to act out a piece of theater with him, to reenact or revoke the past—experiences of his schooldays or nursery which now hold for him a huge reserve of sexual energy. Today it may be the Nazi past that people invoke, in the theatricalization of sexuality, because it is those images (rather than memories) from which they hope a reserve of sexual energy can be tapped. What the French call “the English vice” could, however, be said to be something of an artful affirmation of individuality; the playlet referred, after all, to the subject’s own case history. The fad for Nazi regalia indicates something quite different: a response to an oppressive freedom of choice in sex (and in other matters), to an unbearable degree of individuality; the rehearsal of enslavement rather than its reenactment. (325)

While it is unclear whether or not the accoutrements of Mr. Mosley’s orgy were Nazi inspired, Sontag’s exploration of the relationship between sexuality and repression as it may be acted out through theatrical fascism is important. Regardless of whether Mr. Mosley’s actions were motivated by sexual gratification and/or psychological catharsis, the situation is complicated because Mr. Mosley’s lineage is sided with the oppressor, rather than with the oppressed. It is also likely that, having been raised by fascist British parents, Mr. Mosley may have many personal issues with repression and is struggling to channel these repressions in a constructive manner that include both sadistic and masochistic behavior. However, Mr. Mosley’s actions too closely resemble the oppressive, fascist fantasy of Hitler, and supercede personal psychology by collective values. The public’s reaction is strong and clear: while it is okay that Mr. Mosley’s personal behaviors are not accepted by mainstream sexuality standards, it is not acceptable for him to re-enact a violently oppressive political regime. In the public’s eye, Mr. Mosley’s behavior is ritualistically evoking the crimes of the Nazi party. Situations, like the one that surrounds Mr. Mosley, are important because they allow us to explore the emotional power that rituals provoke throughout a society. How is it that a private psycho-sexual encounter has the power to create outrage? In answering this question, it is critical that an understanding of the relationship between ritual, politics, and aesthetics be established.

While Nazi Germany and the Third Reich may be called many things, they are first a political party. The essential goal of a political party is to obtain power to influence the fate of a community. Theoretically, Democracy holds that the majority should be the deciders, while Fascism asserts that one individual should decide for the majority. In Catherine Bell’s article, “Basic Genres of Ritual Action,” she discusses political rites:

In general, political rites define power in a two-dimensional way: first, they use symbols and symbolic action to depict a group of people as a coherent and ordered community based on shared values and goals; second, they demonstrate the legitimacy of these values and goals by establishing their iconicity with the perceived values and order of the cosmos. (129)

Bell is stating that the power of political rites is focused on “symbols and symbolic action” forming a community that can then relate to a “higher power.” A bridge must be built between the higher authority, the symbol of political power, and the individual. While the initial construction is focused outward, the goal is to create a “connection” with the cosmos that will make it seem that the cosmos initiated the structure, rather than the other way around. Bell states, “It is through ritual, however, that those claiming power demonstrate how their interests are in the natural, real, or fruitful order of things” (129). How can one make a political party seem to be the natural path of a people? “When ritual is the principal medium by which power relationships are constructed, the power is usually perceived as coming from sources beyond the immediate control of the human community” (129). Bell’s statement is very important. In politics, rituals may create an authority beyond the control of a community. Ideally, the political party is expected to represent the interests of the community. However, if this is not so, political power is able to manipulate the community toward other goals. The success of political rites in bonding a group of people together depends on the strength of engagement. Symbols consolidate identification to embody the conscious and unconscious collective identity desires of a community. The artistic work of Leni Riefenstahl during the Third Reich demonstrates the power of symbols in political rites.

Celebrated as the poster-girl of Germany, Leni Riefenstahl shaped the public image of the ideal Aryan through her performances and productions. A biographer of Riefenstahl, Jurgen Trimborn describes her work and political affiliation throughout her 101 years of life. Her career began as a dancer and her work focuses on the aesthetics of the body throughout its entirety. Her networking efforts led her to become friends with Adolph Hitler shortly before he came into political power. Her friendship with Hitler provided her with abundant patronage. Her skills as artistic cinematographer were recruited to both document and artistically render the cultural climate of the time. Her film Triumph of the Will is a montage of a military rally at Nuremburg that was figure- headed by Hitler and his philosophy of a united, pure, Germany. Olympia features beautiful bodies committing astounding athletic feats during the 1936 Olympics that took place in Germany. Riefenstahl’s artistic eye had never been doubted.  However, her fusion of art and politics is frequently described as propaganda. Returning to Bell’s description of political rites, Bell emphasizes that it is important to have “symbols and symbolic action to depict a group of people as a coherent and ordered community based on shared values and goals” (129). Without a doubt, Riefenstahl created a symbolic image that mirrored the philosophy of Hitler’s regime. Sontag describes Riefenstahl’s work as “evoking some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiles, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical” (314). The aesthetic perfection of Riefenstahl’s portrayals provides evidence that divine beauty is possible on earth. However, her work also is explicit in supporting the Third Reich as the modern operating agent of this higher energy, the symbolic connection between beauty, power, and triumph is made to seem naturally affiliated with the Nazi party.

The Nazi party was exceedingly adept at accessing and utilizing the power of the political rite. Bell writes, “Political rituals, […], indicate the way in which ritual as a medium of communication and interaction does not simply express or transmit values and messages but also actually creates situations” (136). Hitler and Riefenstahl were very successful in creating “situations” that would go beyond the communication of the Nazi philosophy to embodiment. An important distinction in Riefenstahl’s work that facilitated greater symbolic meaning is that she was working as an artist, not as a journalist. While both perspectives demand authenticity, the artist has the right to an interpretive perspective. Throughout history this has proven to be dangerous territory. Where is the line between interpretation and manipulation? Artistic perspective and delusion? According to her biography, Riefenstahl claims to have been apolitical throughout Hitler’s (and her own) career and to have merely been an artist with a very powerful agent. Having read her 1938 speech in support of Hitler, she creates fellowship between the art of film and the art of nation building:

Once years ago, the Führer said that if artists knew what great tasks were in store for them in a better Germany, they would join the movement with even greater enthusiasm. Today every artist knows what also is clear to every comrade: reality is providing you with more than your fantasy ever allowed you to dream of. A Greater Germany has become a reality; we have seen it grow from year to year with increasing confidence and deep regard. The creator of Greater Germany is at the same time its most artistic member. (Trimborn 147)

Every successful political party has relied to some degree on political rites. Constructing symbols of state and ideals are intended to create a relationship between a people and their leaders. But what happens when the power of the symbols exceeds the influence of the regime? Can the association that created the symbol lose control? In her speech, Riefenstahl states: “reality is providing you with more than your fantasy ever allowed you to dream of.” Her relationship with Hitler enabled Riefenstahl access to complete creative control and unlimited funding for her artistic endeavors (art which just happened to be aligned with the taste and philosophy of her patron). Riefenstahl celebrates her success as an artist while simultaneously celebrating Hitler’s success as a political leader. Both are built on fantasy.

Sontag argues that Riefenstahl’s art embodied an aesthetic that is inseparable from her politics, a Fascist aesthetic. She describes a fascist aesthetic in the following way:

[Fascist aesthetics] flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, “virile” posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death. (316)

What is the relationship between Fascist aesthetics and the authenticity of an artist? Riefenstahl successfully works with film to create visual metaphors, which should technically make her an artist. But what about the content that provides meaning to an artists work? Beyond the production, is there a responsibility to challenge how the audience views the world? In the 1993 Riefenstahl interviews portrayed in film “The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl,” directed by Ray Muller, Riefenstahl argues that she is interested in what is beautiful, not what is political. Throughout the film she is aggressively more interested in sharing how she filmed, rather than why. True to Sontag’s description of fascist aesthetics, Riefenstahl’s own life has embraced “two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude.” The enduring question regarding Riefenstahl’s work is whether she can be an artist, creating during and with the patronage of Nazi Germany, or is her art saturated by politics and limited to being beautifully crafted propaganda?

In regard to ritual, Riefenstahl developed the widespread success of the political rites that portrayed Germany throughout the world. She was working as an artist, but she was also working as an artist who knew her work was being read as if it were journalism. The world was viewing her work as an example of Hitler’s regime. The problem is that Riefenstahl’s work was limited to representing the grand philosophical ideals and failed to share the racist and destructive. In “Documenting Ritual,” Ronald Grimes writes about his experience working as an expert for a documentary film about ritual.

The choice of rites depicted in the film is driven almost exclusively by visual interest and the availability of footage and archival materials, not by how widespread or important the rites are not, nor how well they illustrate a category, nor by how much is known about the rite. (19)

Grimes’ experience working with the filmmakers shows that he was not expected to present the critical study of rituals; rather he was expected to support a preconceived drama of ritual made by the producers. His complaints of the producer’s narrow vision are supported by their ability to manipulate the perspectives of others through literally cutting and pasting film. The following is a description of what type of material was represented in the “documentary”:

The implied criteria for visual interest are how much movement and color there is, the recording quality of the clip, and the projected ability to attract and hold viewers’ interest. Among the aesthetic preferences exhibited by “Sacred rites and Rituals” are largeness of scale (big crowds and wide vistas are preferred), scenes involving blood or pain, actions with no obvious explanations, culturally unfamiliar sites, and actions displaying ornate or minimal clothing.

Interestingly, the standards for this documentary are similar to the “fascist aesthetics” that Susan Sontag described. Instead of engaging in the experience of ritual, the documentary turns ritual (and those who practice ritual) into “things.”  By turning ritual into a representation of “the other” or a “different thing,” it is no longer representing its original symbolic embodiment within a community; rather it has been co-opted by another perspective. In “Documenting Ritual,” Grimes explains that the problem with this process is that the viewer becomes dependent on the film to interpret the material. The audience fails to think for themselves:

[V]iewers of a “touristic” documentary are rendered dependent on the film. They could not possibly understand performances so exotic and impenetrable without experts, narrators, and filmmakers. Viewers would not perform such rites, because they are too “mysterious,” and viewers could not make intellectual sense of the rites without assistance. In contrast, the viewer of a contemplative documentary thinks, “well, that makes more sense than I would have imagined. Why not do it the way these folks do it?” Or the viewer muses, “ I would never do that, but now it makes sense why they do it that way.” (26)

The complaint against Riefenstahl is first that she was facilitating political rites that enabled the Nazi party to accomplish tremendous crimes against humanity. Secondly, that even if her intentions were to create beautiful images, she was able to do so by the commission of the Nazi party, was privileged to their inner circles, was an intimate friend of Adolph Hitler, and claimed to be an artist while failing to achieve critical engagement within her self and audience. If her failure of perception was intentional, then it was criminal, but if it was unconscious, then she becomes an initiate to the political rite she worked to establish.

In both the case of Leni Riefenstahl and Mr. Mosley’s “Nazi Themed Orgy,” the participant’s relationship to ritual helps to clarify public response. As Riefenstahl demonstrated with her work for Hitler, the energy of political rites is established by creating a connection between the individual, the symbol, and a higher cosmic energy. Because of her success in engaging a nation, and the world, through her mythic images, it is impossible to disassociate the art from what inspired its creation. Through the atrocities of Nazi Germany, the symbols of Riefenstahl’s work are invested with a cosmic power beyond the control of the artist. The effectiveness of the initiation of these symbols by the Nazi political rite is demonstrated through the public outrage expressed toward Mr. Mosley’s private acting out of abusive behavior and its vague illusions to the rituals that previously provoked world war. If Riefenstahl’s work served as Nazi propaganda and disengaged the audience from being critical, then the repercussions are found in a heightened sensitivity toward any symbolic reference to the imagery that distracted the world from preventing crimes against humanity. Consciously or unconsciously, Mr. Mosley incited a response of outrage that was absent during the original symbolic initiation.

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Fairy Tales: Critical Theory and Archetypal Interpretation

August 28, 2009

The question of how to read a text has been asked and argued by theorists since the first work was offered to an audience for interpretation. Questions of what should be considered separable and inseparable from the review of the text are many, the stronger of which have developed into schools of critical theory. The initial debate in reading a text is over the precedence of form versus content. Though Aristotle began this debate, it became publicly popular in the 20th century because of the cultural critic Susan Sontag. Taking a firm stance, Sontag argued for the supremacy of form, and then, over a decade later, changed her position and wrote discourse supporting the primacy of content. Beyond Sotnag’s writing, scholars throughout the world have found legitimate and convincing rationale for either approach. The crux of each perspective argues that through understanding the form, or by going in-depth into the content, the text will naturally open itself to a relevant interpretation. Beyond form and content, additional schools of criticism have emerged throughout the last century. T.S. Eliot headed the movement for New Criticism, in which the meaning of the text is found by staying with the text. Stanley Fish has argued for Reader Response, where the reader’s process of engagement decides the hermeneutic route of understanding. Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis introduced a new way of understanding textual relationships through the differentiation of Self and Other. The move toward Psychoanalytic interpretation lay the foundation for specialized interpretation, as is found in Cultural, Deconstruction and Feminist criticism.  These are only a sample of the different types of interpretive methods that have entered the formal conversation regarding textual interpretation. These conversations obtain new meaning as they are reassessed in regard to Jungian analysis and the interpretation of Fairy Tales. By reviewing von Franz’ interpretive method of Fairy Tales within the textual context of critical theory, we may then compare the strategic methods of interpretation that are introduced by Marie-Louise von Franz in her Introduction to the Interpretation of Fairy Tales and further explored by Professor Walter Odajnyk in his article “The Archetypal Interpretation of Fairy Tales: Bluebeard.” Through understanding the variations in critical theory, we may begin to recognize form and content of interpretation as it relates to psychology and healing potential.

Marie-Louise von Franz’ method of interpreting Fairy Tales is outlined in Chapter Three of her book, Introduction to the Interpretation of Fairy Tales. This is a multi-faceted endeavor and begins by conducting a structural analysis of the fairy tale by observing the time, place, and setting. Next, the characters are identified and counted at the different stages of the story.  Questions such as the following are asked: How many total characters are there? Are they male, female, animal, or other? What is lacking? If the story begins:

‘The king had three sons” one notices that there are four characters, but the mother is lacking. The story may end with one of the sons, his bride, his brother’s bride and another bride—that is, four characters again but in a different set-up. Having seen that the mother is lacking at the beginning and there are three women at the end, one would suspect that the whole story is about redeeming the female principle. (111)

Any unbalance between the number of characters or gender is significant to the interpretation and understanding of the archetypal conflict taking place. Third, a symbolic analysis is begun. This involves looking up and amplifying the symbols within the tale. Preceding this process, psychological analysis processes the information and attempts to translate the story into psychological terms. This does not mean that the tale is translated to promote a psychological agenda or to amplify psychological ideas (Freudian or Jungian), rather the goal of this step is to reiterate psychologically what takes place within the context of the fairy tale.  Finally, personal and archetypal analysis may be attempted. This involves in-depth knowledge of the self and the cultural community in which the fairy tale is active. To verify that the interpretation is authentic and functional takes experience and intuition.

In comparing von Franz’ method with other critical strategies of interpretation, we find that it is a fusion. However, a chief similarity is observed in relation to New Criticism. The importance of staying with the text, or staying with the image to be guided to interpretation is significant. Second, von Franz is working with a psychological model. This means that a vocabulary is introduced in order to amplify dynamics inherent in the material. It is important to note that one of the challenges of using psychological theory in relationship to text is that often a text can be used as a case study to support the foundation of theories. When done thoroughly, von Franz’ theory rejects usurpation of content for the service of theory. The key difference is that it is an interpretation, not a diagnosis.   Cultural and structural perspectives may also be brought into the discussion and analysis.

At this point, it is important to distinguish between the different types of text. While critical theory has opened up the canon to embrace texts from diverse authorship and from innumerable types of media, von Franz’ method focuses exclusively on Fairy Tales. She argues, “Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes. Therefore their value for the scientific investigation of the unconscious exceeds that of all other material” (1). Here, it is stressed that von Franz sees her strategy as a scientific method that is researched, observed, interpreted, and reassessed. While critical theory has been known to assert a similar function in structuralism, it is not always the goal. Typically, theorists strive to achieve new strategies of engagement and understanding and are welcomed to them by the endless flexibility of form and content. In focusing solely on fairy tales, von Franz has changed the conversation by isolating the form and content of the text to a set number of variations. The isolated environment is essential for the success of experimentation. When the text is opened up to infinite abstractions, it is difficult to observe the innately abstract nature of the unconscious. Similarly to dreams, fairy tales enable a specific context and allow the unconscious to be observed.

Another important distinction is raised in Walter Odajnyk’s article, “The Archetypal Interpretation of Fairy Tales: Bluebeard.”  In the introduction Odajnyk distinguishes between the “personalistic approach” and “archetypal interpretation.” Instead of representing human beings and their neuroses, fairy tales personify archetypes, which in turn are the language of the unconscious. The characters in a fairy tale behave “stereotypically and appear to have hardly any inner psychic life […] We may conclude, von Franz writes, that the characters in fairy tales represent archetypes, not human beings, and that the stories address transpersonal difficulties, developments, and dangers and not neurotic complications of an individual” (10). This statement is continued to assert that in the personalistic approach there is no healing potential. In archetypal interpretations the possibility of healing comes from recognizing the archetypal interactions that are unbalanced and then witnessing their realignment. Unconscious elements become conscious and the complex is understood within an attainable context. Just as von Franz narrows the scope of content and form to a contained continuum, so do fairy tales make the unconscious accessible.

In his article, Odajnyk argues “The ‘personalistic approach’ has become the dominant form of fairy-tale interpretation among Jungians and non-Jungians alike” (11). Why is the personalistic approach dominant and how does it nullify the healing potential? One way of observing these questions is to look at the experience of children engaging in fairy tales in comparison to adults and critical theory. As noted above, the challenge of critical theory is to enable engagement with a text. This engagement should lead to some revelation that relates to human experience. Through archetypal interpretation the psyche is engaged and the individual and (in the case of fairy tales) the community have a healing experience. In observing adults, it is difficult to distinguish what is archetypal engagement and what is critical processing, because everything is being processed by a mature intellect. In reading fairy tales, an adult may either interpret a fairy tale in relation to a critical theory, personal identification, or, ideally, an archetypal interpretation. However, a child does not have the context for critical theory, or the developed ego for complex identification. Therefore, the clarity and appeal of archetypes is made more visible. Though a child is not typically in need of the type of healing that an adult may need, the fairy tale serves as a method of emotional and psychological instruction. A recognition of unbalance between binaries such as good and evil, positive and negative, feminine and masculine, and light and dark is made. For the child, an early education in archetypal structures facilitates adult interpretations and healing. This education begins with simple imagist representations that are depicted in cartoon form, such as Pokemon and many Disney films, and then extends to more complex fantasy genre, such as the wizard tales of Harry Potter (J. K. Rowling, 1997), the vampire narratives of Twilight (Stephenie Meyer, 2005), and the numerous stories navigated through video games.

The archetypal nature of fairy tales makes them appealing to children and adults, and transcends cultural boundaries. Fairy tales may be engaged as a means of education, entertainment, and healing. However, they may also be activated within a critical context to explore theoretical and interpretive methods of perception. Personalistic approaches enable creative re-visionings and engagement in a variety of critical theorizing. However, it is important to distinguish between the projection of personal or cultural experience and the archetypal representation of the Self and World that may be recognized by engaging in archetypal interpretation.

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Alchemy and the Hermetic Tradition: Mircea Eliade and Carl Jung

August 4, 2009

The relationship between Mythology and the Religious traditions is an intricate weaving of metaphor. Both Mythology and Religion have the similar function of relating lived experience to a universal purpose. Often, religion relates life choices to divine models, while Mythology creates narratives that contextualize experience. In many instances mythology and religion function simultaneously. However, a major distinction between the two traditions is that mythology is defined as an adaptive narration, and dogmatic perspective restricts religion to a lived mythic model. Though there is a wide continuum of religious interpretation ranging from orthodox to eclectic, as a lived mythology, religion is a lens that the world is seen through. To clarify, there is a specified Catholic religious lens that filters mythology to fit a defined vision of the universe. Many mythologies have foundations in cultures that are no longer active, such as in the Greek and Roman myths. These mythologies resonate throughout history and reveal archetypal characterization that may be seen throughout the world’s cultures and religions. A specific example of the relationship between myth and religion is better understood through the mythology surrounding the Alchemical Tradition as explored by the theorists, Mircea Eliade and Carl Jung.

A working understanding of Alchemy includes both scientific method and spiritual symbolism. A series of elemental transformations is intended to create a new material. However, these changes are not just dependent on following a physical recipe, they must also incorporate symbolic relationships. The basic alchemical sequence begins with a male and female sealing the prima materia  (original substance) into a vessel. This process changes the substance from being red to back, nigredo, the dark side. Calcinatio, is the application of fire to the substance, turning it from black to purple and then into ash. The ashes are dissolved in the solutio, or water. The sunlike substance, sulfur accomplishes the coagulatio, drying, of the solution. The pairing of opposites is possible in a gaseous state, sublimatio. Finally, an alchemical wedding of process and material leads to the reddish yellow/rosy pink philosopher’s stone, coniunctio. Details of this process are revealed by reviewing alchemical symbolism and writings throughout thousands of years of history. The residue of the alchemical tradition is found in science, mythology, religion, art, literature, psychology, politics, and many more areas of intellectual thought and cultural experience.

Mircea Eliade and Carl Jung are two twentieth century theorists who explore the implications of alchemy in a modern context. Each theorist has a working definition of mythology that reveals how the study of alchemy is an important mythological structure. The challenge that both writers have in defining myth is that it is the nature of myth to transform boundaries. In Myth and Reality, Eliade attempts a definition: “Myth narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial Time, […] it relates how something was produced, began to be” (5-6). This definition focuses on the method of mythology. He emphasizes that myth is based on creation stories, which are connected to what is sacred in a culture. In Alchemical Studies Carl Jung is less explicit with his definition of mythology. “Even though mythology may not be ‘true’ in the sense that a mathematical law or a physical experiment is true, it is still a serious subject for research and contains quite as many truths as a natural science; only, they lie on a different plane. One can be perfectly scientific about mythology, for it is just as good a natural product as plants, animas or chemical elements” (159). Jung states that both myth and science reveal truths, however mythic are understood in a different method than scientific truths. He also states that both myths and the elemental world are naturally occurring. While both Eliade and Jung agree that myths are an integral part of human perspective, Eliade focuses on myths as reflecting the sacred in narrative synthesis, while Jung emphasizes mythology as a process similar to other natural phenomena.

In The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy, Eliade explores how alchemy connects the physical and the sacred through a variety of cultural contexts. Beginning with “Meteorites and Metallurgy”, Eliade states, “It was inevitable that meteorites should inspire awe. They came from some remote region high up in the heavens and possessed a sacred quality enjoyed only by things celestial”(19). He continues to explain how the exploration of metallurgy was connected to a spiritual understanding of the universe, emphasizing that in many cultures smiths, or metal workers, held an elevated status in a community. In a later chapter, “The World Sexualized”, Eliade refers to the union of metals in the alchemical marriage as a continuation of natural processes. He clarifies that plants, metals, ores, and stones were given gender forms by cultures in the ancient Orient, Mesopotamia, amongst others. The tools, individuals, and processes that engage these metals are all critical components of the Alchemical Tradition. Eliade establishes a clear connection between the production of metals and the sacred significance throughout his book.

In contrast, Jung articulates alchemy as a metaphor for psychological functions. Alchemy is symbolic of figurative functions within the psyche as revealed by a variety of myths found in visions, myths and symbols. Jung states that “The alchemist […] dreams in his own specific language”, and that “We have [to] learn the psychological secrets of alchemy” (69). He hypothesizes that “the symbolism of alchemy has a great deal to do with the structure of the unconscious” thereby implying that by attempting to wed alchemy with depth psychology we can begin to decipher both mysteries (69). In the chapter “The Philosopher’s Tree”, Jung states,

[T]he confrontation with the unconscious usually begins in the realm of the personal unconscious, that is, of personally acquired contents which constitute the shadow, and from there leads to archetypal symbols which represent the collective unconscious. The aim of the confrontation it to abolish the dissociation. (348)

In relation to this statement, alchemy is represented in two functions. As a tradition, Alchemy is a part of the collective unconscious and reflects archetypal symbols in a way that reveals psychic functions. However, Alchemy also functions as a personal journey of confrontation and dissociation. The alchemist separates from the collective to undergo a series of psychic processes in an attempt to separate, engage, and pursue the nature of the philosopher’s stone. Jung argues for both processes through multiple mythological and symbolic examples in a variety of writings.

As a tradition, the role of alchemy may be observed from several perspectives. Eliade argues for the connection of physical phenomenon to the sacred, while Jung creates a metaphorical connection between the symbolic functioning of archetypes in the collective unconscious and individual psychology. While Eliade and Jung enter into an understanding of Alchemy with different strategies and goals, they both argue for the importance of alchemy in the generating of myth throughout global communities. Both theorists articulate their understanding through cultural, religious, and mythical examples. Just as the scientific process draws on alchemy to explore chemical interactions, so does the intellectual mind rely on the symbolic experience of alchemy in the generation of an active understanding of individual and cultural systems.