Personal Myth in Art:
The Philosophy in the Story
Note: This piece is part of my graduate thesis/project for Lesley Univeristy (Cambridge, MA), which also included a one person art show, and a 30 page catalogue for that show.
Personal myths guide us. Personal myths supply us with a language to express and even understand our relationship with the world, both with the inner world of our imagination and the outer world at large. Personal myths, rightly engaged, motivate our life narrative towards learning and growth. This paper will explore how and why we develop and use our personal myths.
With personal myth we inhabit our own story. For instance, I take the perspective of an artist to write this paper. I mean artist in two senses, as one working specifically in visual media, and—because I also write poetry—in the wider sense of one working in any artistic genre. I hope my viewpoint betrays no limitation. I hope, that is, that what I write here holds relevance even to those uninvolved with art. I certainly intend to establish no competing camps.
To start, I must define my terms. The word myth bears a range of meanings so I will clarify my use of the term. I will then indicate how myths and personal myths differ.
To help present my ideas, I want to place the image of a tree before the reader's eye. Let the reader see this tree in its multiplicity. This tree stands forth as a confluence of ideas and notions about myths. It is a mythic tree offering levels of meaning.
I've just identified a key element of myths: their richness of meaning. As with art and dreams, myths cannot and should not be read definitively. They possess their own fluid logic. Anyone who attempts to translate these forms of expression into neat statements is lost.
Imagine the tree's roots, deep in the earth: they represent the unconscious. We seldom notice these roots, but they continuously affect the rest of the tree, anchoring and feeding it. Likewise, we rarely consider our unconscious yet it constantly influences our conscious mind, and how we live our lives. Our unconscious contains what our conscious mind cannot grasp.
With the trunk of the tree we see symbolized the earthly and conscious. The trunk is visible and palpable. It stands present in the daily world. We can readily touch this part of the tree that hardly seems to change. We find the trunk most useful, an essential product.
The tree's branches and leaves stand for the spiritual. They grow out of our reach and toward the sun and sky. In the tree's leaves we see the greatest evidence of change. We witness their inscrutable green appearance in spring, their autumnal colour shift, and their winter disappearance.
This image of the tree shall inform what follows here. Imagine treetops when I refer to spiritual matters, and tree trunks when I speak of the daily world, and roots when I speak of the unconscious. Let this picture, this symbol with its many layers, guide you.
I just hinted at a key mythic element: myth's layers of meaning. Myths are neither definitive or cut-and-dried. Instead, myths encircle our bravest questions and most difficult utterances, providing a means of articulation and understanding. Let me elucidate.
Myths are stories, but ones that form a shifty truth. Under the term myth we place tales of gods and heroes, epic actions of a Golden Age. We also stretch the term to include the apocryphal and even outright false, a diminution of the more noble intent. Those stories of gods and heroes live even now, despite our sophistication. They live because they bear the beams of truth.
According to Merriam-Webster's On line Dictionary, myth is:
The psychologist Rollo May describes myths as “our self-interpretation of our inner selves in relation to the outside world (May 20).” Myths illuminate and instruct. They relate to us with a symbolic language. As with dreams, that symbolism remains obscure, open to debate. Why does this symbolism exist? Because the issues involved are risky and not agreeable to direct statement.
Furthermore, we seem to have misplaced our respect for myths. We lack the wonder and awe that the originators of myths had. Because of this, our rituals have diminished. Think of such ritual occasions as Christmas or Easter. Both holidays now consist more of feasting and gift giving than religious or spiritual import. We hardly think of the word holiday in its original sense of holy day. Instead, holidays exist more as days off than times for spiritual reflection.
A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world (May 15).” Myths allow people to practice their greatest curiosities, fears,s and raptures. I like the verb unfold in the dictionary definition above because it suggests a slow, natural revelation, like the unfurling of a flower's petals. Rather than statements, myths are processes of engagement.
Nowadays we see myths more as literary symbols than essences of the life power. I'm emboldened to say that we've replaced the gods of yore with simulacra named Tom Cruise, Britney Spears and a seemingly endless supply of similarly celebrated personages. Jung rightly suggests that we no longer possess symbols. Our adulation of celebrities only simulates the awe that the gods of the past thought their due.
In his introduction to the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Robert Graves snidely but accurately remarks, “Mythology is the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student's experience that he cannot believe them to be true (Larousse v).” A certain glamour, or glamourie, attaches to myths. One could describe these experiences as out of the ordinary or even supernatural. These experiences challenge the finite boundaries of our understanding.
Merriam Online's second definition for myths cites a tradition or belief system “embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society”. In this sense, myths form a collective conscious, which is to say, they initiate the structural mores of a people. Myths connect people on this ground.
Even if myths have lost their magic for people now, they still intrigue us. We just can't let them go. Literature particularly avails itself of myths with allusion and reference. I can mention the work of Ezra Pound and James Joyce, but the list of writers who use myths seems endless. Painting also teems with mythic reference. Many films, television shows, and video games rely on myths. Myths are ready made points of reference, despite general ignorance of and insensitivity concerning their larger import.
C. G. Jung pioneeringly regarded myths as serious expressions, essential to their originating culture. He saw in them an integration process. “Myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings, and anything but allegories of physical processes (Archetypes 154).” The light had already gone out in myths for most people when Jung began studying them, yet he rose to their defense. In myths Jung saw, to use a phrase of Thomas Moore, “the richness and polytheism of imagination (Moore 234).”
That we now see myths as having largely devolved to falsehoods sadly illustrates our disconnection. “Everything that we have not thought about, and that has therefore been deprived of a meaningful connection with our developing consciousness, has got lost (Archetypes 14).” What we lose we cannot use. Art and dreams fulfill for us what we do not allow myths to fulfill.
Myths serve us in a way similar to how dreams do. Both let us think about and articulate that which we otherwise would struggle to deal with, our own mortality, for instance. Yet for most people, their lives turn from spiritual matters because too many “practical” issues remain to be faced. I see dreams, myths, and even art as aids in our spiritual awareness. By spiritual I mean any and all metaphysical matters beyond those of the gross body.
I brought forth the image of a tree for this paper because the idea of trees resonates for me. I like them as features of the landscape. I like them as figures of stalwartness. I like how they change with the seasons. Trees figure in my personal myth.
Trees intimate a relationship with the earth. We see them creating flowers, leaves, and fruit through the year. We witness them changing colour. We watch them bear up to winter's snows and summer's droughts.
Trees feature commonly, in various guises, in many landscapes. That commonness imprints them into our imagination. How the imagination uses such imprints embraces what we understand as myths.
A trip from Boise, Idaho to Salt Lake City takes one through an extensive region of cattle ranches. In this largely treeless area, what trees you see are associated with farmhouses and other farm buildings. Cottonwoods predominate here, being adapted to the high desert's winds and dryness. These groups of trees indeed provide protection from the winds as well as much needed shade. Wise ranchers planted those trees, or fostered those that arose naturally. The trees create oases against the harsh surrounding environment.
I see a mythic element in the nurturing protection of those cottonwoods. When human survival was more tenuous, that feeling of nurture and protection must have been even greater. People related more directly then to the world around them than do we now. Their intimacy with their environment allowed them to see gods in the earth, sea, sky, and all around them. For us nowadays, we simply do not perceive gods in our furnaces, ovens and plumbing. We merely see service. We cannot feel humility or awe before such function.
The American poet Charles Olson, whose own work brims with reference to world myths, cites a primary force of myths. Myths help attach us to the natural world. They bring our story into nature's larger system.
Sadly, though the gods may still exist, few people now see them, not in such terms. We stand distant from our environment, and regard our relationship to it as one of master to servant. Indeed, we protect ourselves from it. Even the stars are barely visible in many locations because of light pollution, from the lights with which we illuminate the night.
Those ranches in Idaho and Utah can only exist as such because of irrigation and similar adaptations. Our homes and vehicles, our air conditioners and heating units, barricade us from the elements. We grow away and detach from the living world.
A heinous example of our separation from our world reveals itself in the ecological disasters we have created and still create. Carcinogens in our water supply, deforestation, smog all show the obvious fact: we as a species can have a malignant and far-reaching effect on the environment.
In a sense, art replaces myths in our lives. Where myths are derogated now, art fills the space that myths held for us. “Art raises its head where religions decline (Nietzsche 105).” I don't believe myths have lost their power, only that we no longer know them when we see them. We regard myths as stories, fictions, even lies, rather than implicit efforts towards understanding.
While myths have declined in meaning, art has grown. I believe people favour art with religious awe, even if they don't like art. As Pat Allen writes, “Art as a way of knowing offers a path back to direct participation in life (Allen xvii).” Where myths and religions may lack the cultural energy they once possessed, art does not. Art directs us back to life.
In mentioning art, I bring in the concept of personal myth. We all possess personal myths but artists more graphically display theirs. What is personal myth?
I posit personal myth as our individual attempts to integrate into a world bereft of cultural connection. I think we need personal myth, and that we all utilize our versions of them.
With personal myth we develop the narrative in which we live. This narrative consists in the things we believe in, the things we fear, the things we love. We fabricate our personal myths from our heroes, our delights, our angers, and all our other points of contact with the world.
Think again of the tree that I offered earlier as illustration. Its roots penetrate the depths of the earth, seeking nutriment. Our conscious mind likewise delves into our unconscious seeking to lessen our confusion and make sense of the world. In doing so, we reach into the source, whence our inspirations come.
Perhaps that sounds overly dramatic but I don't think so. Personal myths illuminate and connect us, in our intimate, personal way, to life's seriousness. Where myths fulfill a cultural need, personal myths serve the individual.
I said earlier that trees constitute an element of my personal myth. I have always responded to them. The gnarled shapes of apple trees or the sweeping flow of willows touch me. The shade and colour that trees provide please and calm me. The way trees reveal the yearly cycle anchors me.
Only recently have I recognized the importance of trees for me. I found that my visual work brimmed with trees. This began unconsciously but now I identify this as an area for my further consideration.
Let me speak of the trees in my visual work. I do a lot of what my wife calls lollipop trees. Lollipop trees are simplistic, childlike renderings. A rough circle represents the crown of the tree and a line or column makes the trunk. In being so technically simple to produce, they allow my imagination to render its visions. I'm interested in the meaning of the tree, not an exacting replication.
I should mention that I came late to working in the visual arts. I have been a writer and poet for more than thirty five years but only five years ago did I begin painting. “The recognition that at bottom I am a poet, after all, should be no hindrance in the plastic arts!” wrote painter Paul Klee in his youthful diary (Klee 42). One can feel, early on, that but one way of knowing exists, until one investigates different means of expression. My wife urged me to try painting and I finally allowed myself to be tempted. I thus began.
Paul Klee—to whose work, whimsical and strange, I respond warmly—writes of the inhibitions facing every artist. “So now I have to struggle again, and chiefly against the inhibitions that prevent me from exploiting my original talent. It is certainly not free, but this does not entitle me to yield to the temptation to underestimate it (Klee 187).” For years, I let what I thought was my lack of “natural ability” keep me from attempting visual art.
Here I had a personal myth of inadequacy. I somehow determined that I was unqualified to practice visual art. Despite being much beguiled by art—envious, even, of those who create it—I believed in this lack of qualification. Luckily, I eventually heeded my wife's urgings and began to work with visual media. I changed the nature of my personal myth.
This inhibition that I experienced could be termed a modern problem. Nowadays, we lack a cultural identity that allows us freely to feel the presence of a power, one that might be called the godhead, the soul, the spirit. Yet think of the Lascaux painter crawling into the confines of the cave to express wonders of the world. Viewing the images even now regales one with awe. Life and death set at the core of these images. These terms were keenly present for those living 30,000 years ago. Life and death still exist for us, but science offers us more control over them. Meanwhile, distractions and entertainments keep us distant from life's definitive issues.
Cave paintings such as those at Lascaux have been identified as revealing religious and symbolic intent in their images of animals and the hunt. That seems obvious. One can infer a dynamic relationship between the cave images and the people who made and originally viewed them. Note this description of the Lascaux caves.
That Mario Ruspoli finds so much energy in the cave intrigues me. I imagine that any religious sanctuary possesses a protective, maternal character, but the womblike quality of the cavern intensifies the sensation. What Ruspoli infers from the cave resembles, to me, the value of the unconscious. He feels a raw power in the cave, and though he attempts to name that power, it remains mysterious.
Similarly, the unconscious works mysteriously. That mystery is mythic, deriving its power from symbolism. In this, myth and the unconscious unite, a relationship that art joins, as well. “Because of its numinosity the myth has a direct effect on the unconscious, no matter whether it is understood or not (Archetypes 268).” Myth, art and the unconscious connect via the symbolic.
A young artist in any medium or genre begins mainly by investigating working possibilities. I know that the pieces that I wrote as a teenager were exuberant experiments in trying to write poetry, rather than actually well-written or interesting poems. That writing differed little from an infant touching and tasting and staring at everything that comes within range. It was exploration. Another word for it is learning.
In the process of this learning, a system of symbols develops. Images and themes emerge and repeat. What the artist knows and cares about determines the symbolism. These symbols provide a basis for personal myth.
Personal myth, perhaps, can be defined as going back to the roots, one's own roots. In turning to visual work later in life as I have, I face a unique situation. My having a mature artist's sense of the artistic process but being technically immature forced me to consider my own processes and motivation. It is an odd contrast, having a mature concept of art yet a tyro's means of expression.
The painting and drawing of lollipop trees gave me a way to start. Using such technically simple means, or language, allows me to explore how I could work representationally with visual art while developing my technique. Furthermore, I see that technique serves art rather than art serves technique.
We don't, or shouldn't, judge art strictly in terms of difficulty of production. More importantly we need to judge the nature of the expression. The cave paintings at Lascaux can make one gasp not because they were difficult to produce, though I doubt not the effort that went into them. Pearl Art supply didn't exist then, artists made their own supplies. Nonetheless, a prehistorical person felt inspired to share these visions of wonder and awe despite the difficulties. What urge provoked the artist? That question is most vital, not how the images were produced.
Recall the roots of the tree that I offered as illustration. Those roots are archetypal, suggestive of our unconscious depths. Carl Jung developed the idea of the psychological archetype. “Archetypes are complexes of experience that come upon us like fate, and their effects are felt in our most personal life (Jung 30).” I see archetypes as tools of our unknowing. Is that definition too confusing?
We live in confusion, within sorely straitened limits of experience. Our births and our deaths, our entire lives are mysteries. Archetypes are solidities that we cannot fully know yet they reassure us with their emphatic presence. Our mother is all mothers, and our father is all fathers: thus do archetypes cohere for us. With archetypes we have a common ground of understanding.
The roots of a tree suggest birth and beginning. The acorn in the ground extends into the earth, partaking of water and nutrients. The inchoate, incipient tree grows into its mature form. Jung refers often to the primitive mind, by which he means primitive cultures. I feel wary about such designations as primitive. This world of ours can fill us with raw curiosity, wonder and fear, whether we tread the hallowed soil of a New Guinea jungle or the wilds of Harvard Yard.
I think of our unconscious as our primitive mind. When Jung writes that myths not only “represent, they are the psychic life of the primitive tribe, which immediately falls to pieces when it loses its mythological heritage, like a man who has lost his soul (Archetypes 154),” he indicates the distance humanity has placed between itself and its myths. We have not lost the need for them, only our ability to access them so directly.
Artists connect to the unconscious in a way similar to how Jung's primitive does. In both cases, an acceptance of and a release into the unconscious occurs. I would like to posit the work of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft as an example.
Lovecraft's stories share a stark psychological intensity with those of Edgar Allan Poe. In Lovecraft's case, the work veers particularly towards the supernatural. I offer Lovecraft as evidence because his stories seem to emerge directly from the unconscious.
The story “The Rats in the Walls” tells of an American who reclaims Exham Priory, his family's ancient English estate. Ah, by happenstance, the estate stood on the ruins of a prehistoric temple dedicated to Cybele-worship.
Strange occurrences bedevil the estate and its occupant, including the scrambling sound of a mass of rats in the walls. With a party of friends, our protagonist, Delapore, explores a sub-cellar to the castle. They discover “a subterranean world of limitless mystery and horrible suggestion”. Human bones and those of creatures lower down, as the narrator puts it, than “the Piltdown man in the scale of evolution (Lovecraft 27)”, are jumbled about. It is a scene of violence and cannibalism, one that drives the narrator mad. That madness seems to rise from the unprepared for meeting of the conscious and the unconscious, the logical and the illogical.
Lovecraft writes with a Gothic swagger that propels the horror to an almost visceral degree. Though his style tends towards the florid, one sees that he has a grasp on his invention, which is to say that his stories are not psychotic ravings. They just feel as if they were.
Another Lovecraft story, “The Colour Out of Space”, tells of a strange, plague-like invasion from outer space. Lovecraft writes of
This passage suggests Jung's sense of archetypes, those “experiences that come upon us like fate.” Lovecraft actually developed his own mythos to tie his stories together. He consciously attempted what many, perhaps I should say all, artists do consciously or unconsciously. Lovecraft wanted his work to comprise an entire vision.
The art therapist and teacher Shaun McNiff writes of a patient he worked with in a hospital's psychiatric ward. He encouraged her to paint and draw in his therapy sessions with her. Thanks to this work, she grew more grounded and communicative. “She was able to build feelings of confidence and competence through successful resolution of the many problematic situations presented by her art (McNiff 44).” Art is the active and creative machination of the imagination, it provides a process of resolution.
I don't mean to place art simply in the realm of the therapeutic. I think it is a bold, positive step that art therapies have developed. I also think art offers resolutions beyond such utility, that something in our collective spirit rises up because of art. Art attunes us deeper to life.
Joyce Carol Oates, in her introduction to a selection of Lovecraft tales, perceptively notes how Lovecraft would “ceaselessly work and rework a small nuclei of scenarios, as if to force a mastery over the unconscious compulsions that guide them (Lovecraft xii).” Oates goes on to describe each story that Lovecraft wrote as “a new effort of organization and control (Lovecraft xii).”
That idea of organization and control hits at the heart of myths, particularly personal myths. This acceptance and control consists not so much in a hearty handhold on the reins of the imagination as in a sense of giving in to the imagination and its creative inspiration. By accepting the inhering mystery of the mythic and archetypal, one can discover one's way of knowing.
The unconscious allows us to witness boundlessness, hence the crazy logic in its expression. By crazy I mean fluid, dancing and unbound. You can fly in your dreams, you can talk to your dead parents, you can see what your logical left brain never sees. The visions that we have as we dream or make art produce our personal myths.
Personal myths affect us deeply. We face the need to make our personal myths work for us. When I believed that I was inadequate to the demands of visual art, I closed a path of inquiry.
Possibly, I can take solace from an aphorism by Friedrich Nietzsche. He wrote, “The best author will be the one who is ashamed to become a writer (Nietzsche 120).” Shame sounds harsh, not that Nietzsche's often flippant assertions don't readily shade towards harshness. I think, however, that Nietzsche here asserts the artist's need for a moiety of humility, even to the point of feeling unworthy to the task. Certainly one can feel shame in placing one's work into the context of the world's greats. For instance, to write a play automatically institutes comparison with William Shakespeare. It smacks of arrogance to place oneself in that arena, yet every artist must, or do nothing at all.
Little can more thwart one's entry into creative channels than the example of one's favourite artists. Either one feels so abashed that one never even begins to make art, or one mires in imitation. Artists must learn to pass through their sense of amateurishness and inadequacy. A respectful attitude towards the source of inspiration must coincide with a critical eye. Art arises through a combination of creative and analytical acts.
Here I can invoke the illustrative tree I presented early. The trunk of this tree is its worldly part, visible and in reach. The trunk draws water and nutrients from the roots and lifts them to the branches, the foliage, the flowers and the fruit. The trunk connects the dark workings of the roots to the sunlit activity in the branches. The trunk suggests life ongoing in the daily world.
The artist, as I've suggested, works in the unconscious world but lives in the conscious. As Jung has written, “Musicians, painters, artists of all kinds, often can't think at all, because they never intentionally use their brain (Chodorow 143).” That statement sounds funny but bears truth. Certainly, most artists have ideas about how to create their art. They consider their work and relate it to that of others, they ponder technique. Still, Jung identifies an important element of the creative process here. Artists make themselves receptive to the creative urge.
I do distinguish art from dreams and myths. All three derive their logic from the unconscious, all three are steeped in symbolism. I have conflated them in this paper for that reason. They differ from each other, however, and offer us different uses.
Dreams, for instance, are primarily a private activity. Some people share their dreams with others, and artists may utilize dream narratives or imagery in their art, but the purpose of dreams seems to be a registration and reflection of personal concerns. Sigmund Freud states boldly that “every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state (Freud 151).”
Dreams derive from the unconscious, but apply themselves to the conscious. They allow resolution of issues that the conscious mind cannot find proper vocabulary for or cannot currently cope with. People vary in how they approach their dreams, whether they try to remember them, interpret them, or ignore them. It seems that at the least dreams nudge us towards a recognition of issues in the unconscious.
Myths too have an unconscious quality. I see them as cultural connections, shared by a people. Myth's express what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious, which, he writes, “is made up essentially of archetypes (Archetypes 42, author's emphasis).”
I need to differentiate the unconscious emanations of dreams and myths from works of art. The unconscious very much informs the artistic process and the act of creation, yet the artist's contribution cannot be ignored. Artist's are not simply conduits of the Muse though a respect for such agency is mandatory in the creative process.
When I imagine the illustrative tree that I evoked earlier, I see the trunk as being between worlds. While the tree's roots are out of sight, and its branches and leaves are out of reach, the trunk largely remains our palpable experience of the tree. Are not our daily lives likewise caught between worlds?
I believe so. Daily we balance between the conscious and the unconscious, and between the spiritual and the mundane. Even our thinking shifts between logical steps and creative leaps.
As individuals, we possess differing shares of the creative and logical. In my life, I have perhaps placed overmuch emphasis on my creative side. Widening my creative outlets to include visual art has been a tremendous opportunity for me to look critically at my process, thus initiating emphasis on my critical faculties.
As one who has been a writer for more than thirty years, writing is second nature for me. I have developed methods and skills, a means of production. This not to say that poetry or any art is a snap, only that I am a seasoned practitioner. More importantly, I have nurtured my personal aesthetic. I have a sense, even if I cannot well articulate it, of the sort of poetry I want to write.
Visual art, on the other hand, is all new. I have made my study of painting through the years, though not in terms of a practitioner. I still exult, after five years, in the pleasure of using different media, essentially playing with possibility.
This new path in my artistic career demanded a greater utilization of my logical brain. I have a mature artistic sensibility but technically speaking remain a beginner as a visual artist. I hope this feeling of beginning continues. As a visual artist I still feel wide-eyed and excited, thrilled by possibility.
I speak of my art career here because it illustrates the sense of being in between that I mentioned. Visual art is such a playful medium of expression. Whereas a writer must contend with somehow “saying something”, a visual artist can simply revel in the visceral pleasures of colour, shapes and movement.
I do not place one modality above another, both are vital. This fresh outlook on creative expression that I enjoy has helped me to see more clearly what necessity compels my work, and that of anyone.
Trees, I discovered, and have already noted, have proven a frequent subject for my artwork. Trees constitute an element of my personal myth. They become numinous by repetition.
I recently gave the first showing of my work. Showing one's work places it in the world. Sharing the work constitutes an essential aspect of art. Art dies a-borning if not seen by eyes other than those of its creator.
I placed sixty pictures in a variety of media on the walls of the gallery. These were the main pieces of the exhibit. I wrote a catalogue keyed to these pieces, each picture possessing an accompanying commentary. I conducted conversations with many of the pieces. I will speak of the nature of these conversations later.
In addition to those sixty works, I distributed another forty or so loose on any available surface. I hope that viewers would feel invited to pick them up. I saw the show as an installation. Surely, the term art installation varies in definition. I wanted a commanding space where the pieces could be set in casual juxtaposition. I wanted the pieces displayed intimately rather than in the standoffish manner of many galleries and museums. I wanted to invite the viewer to participate in the showing, not be subjected to it.
I literally enacted dialogues with a number of the works. I learned this technique from the art therapist and Lesley University dean, Shaun McNiff. It offers a way to exceed the ego's border and experience the Other.
I should explain that in this instance, the Other consists in the work as it lives outside the artist, namely me. Freeing the work from the artist's biography is the point. Artworks live beyond their creators.
We must temper the tendency to see images as part of the artist who created them. To this end, the artist needs to be re-visioned as a co-participant in creation, rather than as the center of artistic activity. This decentering of the ego is not an attack on its existence, but an attempted opening to the ecological interplay of expression (McNiff 83).
I love that last phrase, “ecological interplay of expression.” Artist and viewer both participate in the experience of art, in a symbiotic relationship that includes the artwork itself. McNiff speaks specifically of images but the statement applies to all works of art.
In writing the showing's catalogue, I performed numerous conversations with the works. I did this by looking at a picture and developing dialogues with it. Maybe it would have been more effective had I spoken the dialogues aloud, tape recording the results. I was more comfortable writing the conversations than performing out loud, which I think may be a useful determining factor.
The first time that I did a dialogue, I asked a lot of questions, even such heavy handed ones like what do you mean? I learned not to bear down like that. Who likes to be interrogated? Taking a more equal conversational tack proved far richer.
The process is collaborative. So is the process of making art, and so is the process of enjoying art, too. This is key. “Nothing creative exists in complete isolation,” writes Shaun McNiff (84).” The artist does not simply download inspiration, nor does the viewer download enjoyment. Instead, both people work together with the work, taking meaning and, finally, learning about themselves.
In my showing I presented, almost randomly selected, myriad pictures featuring trees. That I repeat the motif so often itself proves meaningful. As with any symbol, the meaning is obscure. Carl Jung writes that “a symbol is the best possible expression for an unconscious content whose nature can only be guessed, because it is still unknown (Archetypes 6, footnote).” My trees are areas of interest and concern for me, and to be respected as such.
Regarding the symbolic as having fixed meaning only places limits on possibility. The answer, really, is not the point, the process is. McNiff's words bring to my mind the famous assertion of John Keats concerning Negative Capability, which Keats wrote in a letter to his brothers. I find it a useful touchstone. He described Negative Capability as
Art is an expression that can be said no other way. What a work of art, any work, says is what it is. Artworks do not communicate by direct statement. When people approach artworks as statements, a gross misapplication occurs.
For instance, Robert Burns saying “my luv is like a red, red rose” is not stating as fact that someone is red, thorny and odouriferous, and to be left at that. Instead, one should witness the array of implications deriving from the statement. In reading a poem, the reader must engage imaginatively with the words in their boundlessness, not restrict meaning to prosaic tunelessness. Why? To fulfill the poem's energy transfer, its eager process.
Readers must attune their thinking to the work in hand. A work of art is not biography, or political disquisition, or advice column, or anything but what it is, though these and much else can inform the creation and understanding of it. The poet Gary Snyder wrote a poem that was literally a beef stew recipe (“How to Make Stew in the Pinacate Desert: Recipe for Locke & Drum”). That he presented it as a poem, in a book of poems, demands that the reader think of the work as such, not as a recipe. Let the reader decide how successful a poem it is, but understand the intent as poetic not culinary. We live, I repeat, in between.
Jung accurately notes a difference between directed thinking and fantasy-thinking (I include creative, art thinking under this second term). Directed thinking can be exhausting, whereas fantasy thinking can sail smoothly. With directed thinking, one seeks to control expression, establishing an accurate and logical path. In fantasy-thinking, ideas and images tumble forth freely.
Our world is conditioned for both modalities. As individuals, we tend to favour one or the other, but each has its use. The logical and critical balances the creative. Only informed by both can we fully—as fully as we can—know the world.
Carl Jung developed methods of inquiry into the unconscious. An openness to possibilities, which to me suggests what I think Keats meant by Negative Capability, forms the basis of his method. His method depended on calm informed inquiry, and putting pieces together.
There is our challenge. As a first step, one needs to respect that secret thought. Forcing the secret's issuance can crush the secret. Jung writes of a censor in the unconscious that “will not allow the thought to pass until it is so disguised that the dreamer is unable to recognize it (Dreams 7).” Jung speaks here of dreams, but again we can widen the grasp of his statement to include art. People betray art's essence when they labour to explain it.
I glean from this that process is key. Dreams, myths and art do not proffer answers so much as process. Maybe primitive people really believed someone was in the sky tossing thunderbolts around but I think more entered such concepts. That is, maybe they saw a thunder god at work in the world, but more importantly they saw the world's incongruity in action.
The devil, I think, is prosaic, literal interpretation. Such can shrink Proust's masterwork to a homily like time flies. Were that all one could elicit from À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, one has missed the boat. The meaning of Proust's great work embraces its extent, its tangents, its dogged details. It means what it is.
I suppose I could invoke Marshall McLuhan's famous maxim: the medium is the message. Better still, I could adapt it to say that the process is the message. In writing his magnum opus, Proust entered a that took nearly half of his life. It was not simply a story that he wrote, but a manner of engagement with life.
The work of H. P. Lovecraft, weird as it is, has a crazy truth to it. I believe he entered his own fears and questions to produce his work. While you can see Lovecraft's work influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and other writers of Gothic weirdness, the prepossessing landscapes, the almost complete lack of female characters, and the chilling intensity of his visions all attest to a ready connection to his unconscious. One sees that he is an author in control of his story, not a raving psychotic, though his tales certainly unnerve. As much as his stories seem to draw from the unconscious, they represent the work of a conscious mind. They teem with his personal myth.
In my showing, I consciously gathered many of the tree images that I've produced, as indications of my personal myth. My personal myth extends beyond trees. Without attempting to define fully the nature of my personal myth, as if I even could, I will briefly cite features of it that come to mind as I think of the hundred or so pictures that I displayed. Personal myth consists of the entire matrix of these details.
Taking these working features, and any others that might exist, as directives for my work, one can see them as determining factors in my personal myth. Personal myth represents the terms within which I live and work.
Let me place another image before the reader. Envision an acorn fallen from an oak. It nestles in the duff and soil near the tree. Over time, if conditions allow, the acorn's shell cracks and a tap root emerges. The root probes deeper into the soil. Energy stored in the acorn depletes as the tap root grows.
The root goes deeper, finding water and nutrients in the soil as well as anchoring the burgeoning tree to the ground. Eventually what will be the tree's trunk begins to appear. The roots continue growing downward while the trunk and branches grow up and out. I am sure this is a familiar picture for most people.
I present this image because it relates to the manner of personal myth. An urgent seeking of water and nutrients occurs underground. These transfer through the trunk to the branches, leaves, flowers and fruit of the tree. Likewise our own daily activity makes use of what it can of the unconscious, bringing to light what the conscious mind can deal with.
In bald terms, I contend that we consciously reckon little of what we do or why. Our motivations are shrouded and unclear yet a procedure exists, for us to understand. Additionally, we inhabit a striving. Our lives go on, for certain, towards some comprehension of the light in our lives.
Thus, if you please, the crown of the illustrative tree. Here, amidst the branches and leaves, processes of generation occur. Through the offices of chlorophyll, sunlight becomes energy that the tree can utilize. Furthermore, the leaves “breathe”, exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide, an exchange that we humans benefit from in symbiotic relationship.
I hope that my hearkening to seventh grade earth science can be seen for its dazzling essence. We learn by consultation with our unconscious. Our unconscious roots await our ability to understand the weird trumpetings. Our condition strives towards fruition and balance.
In my tree image, a more collaborative situation exists than in Jung's picture. The roots continuously “inform” the trunk with water and nutrients drawn from the earth. The trunk then conducts these elements to the branches, leaves and fruit. I suppose that I could state as the tree's goal the production of fruit, from which regeneration can occur.
Now I come, with trepidation, to spiritual matters. I say trepidation because spiritual matters can be full of foggy assertions. I want to relate the tree's “quest” to how people strive. I particularly want to relate to how artist's strive, as my own personal myth involves the making of art. What fruit do I bear in the making of art?
I hope romantic notions of striving don't encumber my meaning. As Nietzsche writes “... all words have become hazy and inflated through centuries of exaggerated feeling (Nietzsche 121).” Words such as strive, or soul become particularly problematic because of that exaggeration. Yet these words still bear essential meaning, so, with caveat, I shall use them.
Artists set a goal—largely unconsciously, I believe—in their work, an ideal. They follow a jostling, careering route towards that goal. I speak of the nature of the work itself, not such considerations as writing a bestseller, winning the Nobel Prize or having work hung in the Guggenheim Museum. That nature of the work can be called the artist's personal idiom, and the essence of personal myth.
;“A good writer possesses not only his own mind but also the mind of his friends (Nietzsche 118).” Nietzsche speaks of a writer's (and artist's) influences, and an openness to possibilities. Keats, in one of his wonderful letters, describes the poetical character (which I extend to include the artistic character), as “not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—it has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated (Keats 418-419).” Both Nietzsche and Keats identify a power, to call it such. It concerns the ability to include, accept, and wonder.
I call this a spiritual exercise because it partakes of the spirit. Something gross and inchoate transmutes to something possessing meaning, form, use, and perhaps even beauty. Remembering the illustrative tree, think of it similarly. In a collection of united procedurees it delves into the earth for nutrients while it converts sunlight into living energy. Our unconscious teems with murky ideas and impulses that, in our striving, can become meaningful, useful and beautiful.
In my showing, I presented works from the entire five years of my visual art career. I took the risk of including less satisfying works. I wanted to pay homage, and I truly mean homage, to the works that helped me learn. Those failures perhaps failed by my not trusting the creative process.
I've spoken of how the unconscious informs art. The artist learns to enter the unconscious, participate in its machinationses and allow it to speak. At the same time, the artist instinctively keeps in mind his or her artistic objectives. It's a dicey balance, rarely accomplished in anything like perfection, which is why great art should be revered.
Let us say that the artist gambles that the right impulses are followed. Not just beginning artists must labour to avoid letting career goals (a Nobel Prize, an appearance on Oprah), or respectful emulation, or even political or social commentary shift them from the artistic impulse's course though certainly any of these career goals can occur alongside the work's impulse. The creative process must be trusted because the imagination cannot be controlled, only honoured and respected. And to the degree that anyone can, understood.
I want to speak of the spiritual aspect of art now. Once again I ask the reader to imagine a tree. Think of its display throughout the year. The tree catalogues the world's condition.
Deciduous trees graphically show the year's changes. Branches are bare and grey in winter. As spring approaches, buds and flowers burst forth. Some trees flower dramatically. I like the reddish flush cast on the landscape as oaks and other trees flower in early spring.
Mid spring a green canopy of leaves suddenly seems to emerge. The green shimmers with freshness and vibrancy. The colour dulls as the year progresses.
In fall, the spectacular display of foliage occurs as chlorophyll production abates, revealing the “true” colour of the leaves. Winter nears, and the leaves brown and tumble from the trees. Thus endeth another year.
This is familiar to everyone. Perhaps it is all too familiar, and we forget. A picture from my showing, and one that I enjoy, bears the title “How Could I Forget?” It depicts a landscape, a forest and an open area. Though a small, modest painting, a watercolour, it is compelling.
The title came to me after I finished the painting. The scene that I saw seemed wistful and valedictory. It spoke of times past, places I have been. I don't think regret plays into it so much as a sense of transiency. If regret informs this picture, it would be that I lack full attention, that I miss moments.
Now, in painting the picture, none of this stood consciously in my mind. In fact, I pictured nothing when I began. In most cases when I paint, I do something, then look at what I did. What I see in those first few strokes determines where I go with the work. Nietzsche's improvisatory “instantaneousness of origin” occurs wherein I trust my unconscious to reveal something to me.
Sometimes people decide to create an abstract painting from the start. No images are allowed to appear. This is not natural. How can you know what your painting will need before you begin? When people say they do abstract painting only, it often means they are ripe to explore the dangerous and judgment-prone world of recognizable images (Cassou/Cubley 62).
With art, and with any enterprise, one must willingly face the consequences of one's learning. One needs to inhabit the difficulties one faces, as uncomfortable as that may feel. I avoided attempting representational images because I felt unskilled. When I tried drawing something representationally, I saw a cartoonishness that I disdained. Expectation—unreasonable, at that—got in my way.
Silly me. Pablo Picasso, a skilled technician, produced myriad cartoonish images. Likewise Paul Klee, and many other artists. If true-to-life rendering were the sole aim of painting, then we could regard Picasso, Klee and almost every painter as failures. Only photography would matter, and even there, photography can often be about other than strict representation.
The image itself isn't the point of a painting, but the thoughts and feelings engendered by it. This holds true for the painter as much as for the viewer. Both approach the work as an active agency. “The finished artwork, as in physics, is a carrier of the energy transferred to it through the process of creation (McNiff 213).
Energy transfer. That's the spirit of art. That's the spiritual reward: energy transferred and shared.
I now do more representational pieces than when I began. I start with an urge to paint. “No matter how you start, a movement will arise from there and guide you to what you really need (Cassou/Cubley 19).” I call it play, because it differs not at all from the intent experimentation children enjoy with anything they can get their hands on. The goal is no more than the process itself.
I have little more in mind when I work than to see what happens. Shaun McNiff writes that “conflict defines what needs attention in our lives (McNiff 53).” The images and designs that I make are battlefields. These images come as unguardedly as possible from the unconscious, where all is essential and serious. The battle forms in the bringing forth of these images, allowing them to appear without conscious editing. Editing can come later, after scrutiny and contemplation, not in the tender, tenuous moments of the creative flow. Further contention occurs in honest review of the work.
There is nothing more satisfying than to come from that source, that “place that has no opposite because it is a place of being (Cassou/Cubley 52).” The satisfaction derives from surprise at the outcome, and the fortifying sense of procedure. When one follows the demands of the energy's motivation, one has a trustworthy guide. Yet I highlighted the idea of conflict. Why?
As Jung notes, the conscious and unconscious constantly battle. The conscious mind can only deal with what it is ready for. The unconscious keeps these issues available for such time as the conscious can meet them. A person must maintain a sense of acceptance, yet with critical judgment awake. This is the essence of trusting the process.
Trusting the process provides no safety net, in fact it demands that one take risks. It can stir up feelings of vulnerability, inadequacy and dismay. It can cause artists to worry about the reception of their work, when the expression arrives in unexpected form.
I see this course of adventure finally as a spiritual one. The striving occurs beyond the gross world of reviews, prizes and opinion. Those are real considerations, but not while the artist produces the work. Instead, the artist discovers an informing release where questions, fears and emotional intensities become available, open for reflection and compelling growth.
Process lets us learn. It teaches us how to learn.
Carl Jung writes: “Presumably the psyche does not trouble itself about our categories of reality; for it, everything that works is real (Chodorow 95, author's emphasis).” Creativity asserts an affinity for what works. We all feel surprise at creative leaps that we take, ideas that come from “out of nowhere”, inspirations of all kinds. This is the psyche freed to find its way.
Personal myth provides context for our striving. Through personal myth we enact the story that we live. As I've earlier indicated, one can go awry with one's personal myth by promulgating one's limits rather than possibilities. I did this by not allowing myself the opportunity to do visual art for so long.
I arrived at a key point in my life when I took up visual art. I had returned to school as an adult learner to finish my bachelor's degree. That represented one step in an act of broadening my scope. Turning to visual art (but not away from writing) represented another. The magic of visual art proved wholly unexpected. That I could produce work satisfying to me and to others surprised and pleased me. More importantly, I had blossomed. I had realized a portion of my personal myth.
This is ultimately a spiritual matter. Painting extends my creative horizon. It also provides me with a new personal outlook. With visual art, I can see my own artistic method and purpose more clearly. I have discovered greater learning potentials in myself. This growth is spiritual.
Perhaps I have asserted uncomfortable terms. I just want to place the learning process in a serious context. The effort to learn demands constant attention, curiosity, humility and patience. Application to the process need never end.
When I was in college the first time, in my teens, I suspected that some of the writers that I knew in writing class would not always be writers. They would outgrow their interest. For me, I believed, though I couldn't know, that I would continue to apply myself to writing, to poetry. And so it proved.
I place no judgment on those who might have given up writing poetry. I'm sure they moved on to other things. I just want to identify how inexhaustible learning is. For some reason, I had the commitment to continue writing and studying poetry, even though I understood so little about poetry.
I don't even know why I chose to be an artist. It feels as if art chose me. I liked to read but I can think of little evidence as a child that I would be a writer. Perhaps it will be worth it for me to tell how I became one.
At sixteen, I had an after school job washing dishes at a convent. While playing touch football one Saturday afternoon, I suffered a broken hand. The cast I got precluded dishwashing for a while, though the nuns kindly saved my job for me. I thus had more time to hang out with friends.
One of these friends revealed that he wrote poetry. I regarded this as a revelation. My friend was someone I played sports with, he liked rock music, and though he was extremely intelligent, he wasn't the sort of overweeningly ambitious student that I imagined wrote poetry. If my friend could write poetry, I guessed it would be all right if I tried.
I cannot say how I came by such an image of a poet as I held except to note that the poetry presented in school never caught my fancy. Furthermore, I believed that interest in poetry could not coincide with an interest in sports, in which I was already interested (I wanted to be Willie Mays, but that never really worked out).
I lacked a model for poetry when I started, though a teacher the previous year fortuitously dispelled the notion that poetry had to rhyme and follow a set meter. I simply pressed forward, and wrote. “Creation, if you let it, will force you out of the limited definition of who you are (Cassou/Cubley).”
Here I established a personal myth, that of a writer, and as a writer, an artist. To be a writer meant to write, and to learn more about writing. I diligently wrote what I thought was poetry. My first writing model—perhaps oddly, but I find fittingly—was the humourist Robert Benchley. Additionally, I started reading poetry, which I had never done outside of the classroom. It literally took me years before I started to like reading poetry. At least I persevered in trying to learn more about the genre.
I place this all in the realm of the spiritual, not because I regard poetry and art so highly, though I do, but because of the dedication involved in my pursuit. I overcame my suspicion—a complete misconception, really—about poetry. I found a way to understand and respect it as an artistic expression. This sort of commitment to improvement and to learning can best be described in spiritual terms.
Part of the how that Cassou and Cubley speak of pertains to dedication. The arts expect a commitment, both by the artist and by those who study and enjoy it. Those who do not “get” art haven't invested the requisite time and curiosity to find out what a work might mean. This differs not at all from how obscure mathematics or economics may seem to those who haven't studied those subjects. The artist must practice and study. Little about the arts is a gift. One must actively commit to the process of understanding.
It seems like personal myth evolves. One is, perhaps, conditioned by birth and upbringing, to head in certain ways, but I believe the ability to change that course remains in all of us. I assume such a belief lies at the core of psychoanalysis. Instead of change, I might use the word become. We are ever in the act of revealing ourselves. Not to the world so much as to ourselves.
I began this paper by stating that personal myths guide us. How do they do so?
Personal myths awaken a process in us. They present us with narratives to follow. They provide us the story that we tell ourselves. This telling shapes the life that we live.
Personal myths describe what we are, but also what we can become. Think of them as road maps, or pathways. I see them as prescriptive rather than limiting. We all have burdens and difficulties, but we also have choices. Personal myths establish an ongoing logic of life.
Imagine an oak. Underground, the roots spread and probe. The area that the roots explore roughly equals the area that the branches fill. The tree anchors and delves into the earth even as it rises into the sky. The trunk holds the crown of branches high.
I will be so simplistic as to say that the tree's purpose is to live. It functions within its life processes, drawing nutrients from the soil and energy from the sun. It lives within the cycle of the seasons. So, of course, do we.
Everyone has their own processes, and their own aims, for which one slogan cannot encompass all. Therefore, I won't speak of some grand purpose, that remains for each person to determine. I will just say that we live, and continue to live, for a reason. Our personal myths bear this out. They delineate the features of both our conscious and unconscious striving.
We need to understand the practical pathways of our personal myths. They help guide us in a healthy way. We must inspire the health ourselves, however. By avoiding working in visual art, I told myself a story of my inability. The denouement of this story insisted that I could not do visual art.
My error perhaps lay in glorifying production over process. Had I earlier understood the process, and the learning opportunity, I would have begun painting long ago. Instead, I saw the great paintings of the world as evidence of some power that I lacked.
That I didn't appreciate poetry in the least when I began writing actually allowed me more easily to write it, silly as that sounds. I wasn't cowed by what others could do, I was largely ignorant of what was considered the “right” way to write poetry. This ignorance let me explore my personal expressiveness and establish my own sense of poetic form without having to compare my work to others.
One can learn by emulation, so I don't deprecate it. My own brand of insecurity probably needed this opportunity to find my way. Perhaps it took me longer to discover my idiom than it has for others, but I was never in a rush, anyway.
Joan Chodorow, in her introduction to Jung on Active Imagination, her useful collation of Jung's writings on the subject of active imagination, writes “Lacking the active participation of consciousness there is the danger of identifying with a mood or dream or fantasy (Chodorow 6).” In withholding myself from visual art for so long, I lacked participation in my fear (of inadequacy). I needed to maintain critical attention. I had to realize that my greatest possible failure in painting would be never to try it.
Chodorow goes on to write “Active imagination has two parts or stages: First, letting the unconscious come up; and second, coming to terms with the unconscious (Chodorow 10,).” This process of active imagination that Jung identified is a learning process. I would relate it to Paulo Freire's dialectical approach to learning. In both cases, an active and balanced relationship is developed, nurturing open expression and the growth of greater curiosity.
Performing the dialogues with my paintings that I did for my show, I saw the life of the works, and in that life, their value. In painting so many trees, I see that I engaged, and still engage, a process of recognition.
By their very commonness, trees become forgotten, hardly noticed. They enjoy about the same consideration as furniture: present but barely accounted for. The ritual of bringing trees into the home at Christmas time stands as one subtle reminder of trees as important living entities. That this somewhat awkward tradition continues suggests an imperative that receives little recognition. In the dead of winter, we are reminded of green living nature, and the cyclic return of spring. Can we not see other evidence of such mythic impulse?
At first I didn't consider why trees began appearing in my work. I liked them, and that proved a good first step. When I noticed how often trees appeared in my work, I realized that they represented an area that needed exploring. What do the trees mean to me?
They mean a lot.
I had been caregiver to my father, who suffered dementia, from before I began painting till his death in March, 2005. His decline was slow and wearing, for my wife, my son and myself as well as for him. The situation proved a constant confrontation with heavy issues of life and death.
In the trees that I created, I can see the cycle of life. I made images of trees falling down, trees bursting with colour, trees protecting one another. The reader can perhaps infer a sense of the paintings by some of their titles: “Last Tree My Friend”, “Summer Tree”, “How Could I Forget”. These paintings intimate joy, valediction, togetherness, loss, strength, and more.
In their artistic becoming, the tree images acted as tutelary spirits for me. The process went exactly as how Chodorow describes active imagination: I let the images arrive from the unconscious, then, slowly, I came to terms with them.
In trees, as they arose in my work, I saw life's cycles. I saw growth and nurture and change and connection. I met life and death, love and dismay. I found in trees an expression of my learning. I discovered a way to live through and understand a crucial life experience.
As I took the tree images in hand, I beheld and enacted my personal myth. I saw the progression of the narrative that I had chosen. My inherent motivations were allowed to speak and be heard.
In writing this paper, I sought to explain personal myth. I hope that I have at least suggested some of the power and use of the mythic. Personal myth consists in self-recognition, in the coolest yet most imaginative manner. I think personal myth is an active agent in the creative process. With personal myth's critical factor we relate to ourselves, our motives and the world itself. We bring ourselves into the world and the world into ourselves.