It is through symbols that man consciously or unconsciously lives, works and has his being. — Thomas Carlyle

In art history Symbolism was an actual movement in which pictorial means were used to convey allegorical meanings. Throughout history, however, artists have used symbols and symbolism, especially in religious iconography.

To illustrate the difference between symbolism and representational art, picture a cave drawing of several buffalo images with a dotted line crossing a bunch of wavy lines. This representational piece is telling people where the buffalo are and how to get there. (They are across the river.)

If one of the buffalo has wings and is flying above the herd, it might be some kind of early symbolic expression. (“The gods granted me an opportunity to take one.”) If there is a large tripod-like creature lifting one of the buffalo and a screeching noise being emitted with a beam of light coming out disintegrating the other buffaloes, then you are looking at an early telling of War of the Worlds. Later historians would then endlessly debate whether this was Realism or Fantasy.

All this to say that symbolism is as much a part of art as metaphors are to poetry. For example, in David Bowie’s Is There Life On Mars? the line, “look at those cave men go” is not referring to cave men but to lowbrow brutes having it out in a bar fight, or possibly the alienated teenager is watching a movie of such. The words are not literal but rather metaphorical, as is Em Dickinson’s line, “Hope is the thing with feathers” which Woody Allen turns around to indicate his own — and modern man’s — existential alienation and despair with the title of his volume Without Feathers. (Or he may just mean he is exposing himself.)

O.K., so this was a long intro to make a small point about my Lincoln paintings. My first painting, Blue Lincoln, was not really about Lincoln at all. I had read a quote somewhere that “you can’t fight an international war and a civil war at the same time” and it resonated with me. I believe it may have been from the book Maximilian and Carlotta in which the U.S. could not defend Mexico against European incursion (a violation of the Monroe Doctrine) because it was in the throes of its own civil war.

For me this was a perfect symbol of many lives today who are battling their own inner conflicts, have unresolved issues internally, while simultaneously trying to carry on with their life purpose of service to the community, or a bigger cause in the world-at-large. Many people have been sidelined by internal conflicts who could have bern leaders of organizations in need of leadership.

The Lincoln image thus became such a symbol for me. The overarching internal conflicts between good and evil, living right and yielding to temptation, left the president blue.

The painting Lincoln II had a brighter background, but his features were ashen. The subtitle, Portrait with One Dying Eye, is a reference to the line from Dylan’s Hurricane. “The wounded guy looks up through his one dyin’ eye, Says ‘What’d you bring him in here for? He ain’t the guy.’” The song is ultimately about injustice, as noted in the second to last verse. “To see him obviously framed couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game.”

And so it is that presidents themselves become symbols. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was not delivered in Arlington Cemetery, land that formerly belonged to Robert E. Lee, but rather at the Lincoln Memorial. Symbols have power. Symbols resonate.

I mention all these things with an end in mind. The last Friday in each month here in Duluth we have a Downtown Arts Walk in which more than a dozen art galleries open their doors.

This kind of activity is happening in dozens of communities across the land, on various days and times. I’d like to encourage you to take to the streets, stretch your comfort zone and see a bit of all this creative energy that is emerging. And as you engage the arts, whether the visual arts, music, poetry or theater, it can be a rewarding exercise to engage the work in a more profound ways, as you look for threads that lead deeper into the mind of the artist or beyond to the culture-at-large.

Of course some art is simply what it is. The landscape is a landscape or the sitar is simply a sitar.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store