Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Importance of Symbols

As if in response to Cedric's comment yesterday that "American museums are rich in art mostly because of the two big wars, which resulted in all artists, collectors and galleries moving to USA with all their art," today Randy Kennedy has an article in The New York Times about the Monuments Men, whose job it was to track down and repatriate art looted by the Nazis during WWII:

The story might sound like grist for a Dan Brown novel or a Steven Spielberg treatment. But the efforts of Allied officers and soldiers like [Bernard] Taper to save and repatriate stolen treasures during and after the war is a chapter of World War II history still not particularly well known. Even during the war their work — when compared with saving lives and preserving ways of life — was sometimes discounted. Some members of the military referred to these soldiers as “Venus fixers,” a term with more than a hint of the effete.

But the accomplishments of these soldiers, better known as the Monuments Men, are finally starting to come into sharper focus. “Rescuing Da Vinci,” a lavishly illustrated book devoted to them, with dozens of pictures newly unearthed from archives, has just been published by Robert M. Edsel, a retired Texas oilman. Mr. Edsel, 49, became obsessed with the story several years ago and even established a research office in Dallas, his hometown, with the goal of telling it better.

This month, in large part because of his work, Congress passed a resolution honoring the Monuments Men (whose number also included some women and civilians), saying that the value of their work “cannot be overstated and set a moral precedent” for the preservation of culture.
Note that the effort was twofold. "Save" and "repatriate" (although I'm sure some of the found treasure made its way to US shores, in general the effort was designed to return the work to its rightful owners...no small advance for humanity given the centuries long tradition of the spoils of war going to those among the victors who actually found it).

It's a fascinating article (and it looks headed toward a major motion picture if Edsel has his way, it seems), but what intrigued me most about the article was the competing priorities of widespread upheaval: "saving lives and preserving ways of life" vs. "the preservation of culture." Any fool who would save an artwork over another human's life deserves total scorn (and possibly prison), IMO, but I think the members of the military who mocked the Monuments Men missed something essential about what their efforts represented.

Forget aesthetics. Let's consider artwork, for the purposes of this post, as symbols. We know that you can manipulate the wrath of people through how you use symbols (paint a swastika on a temple, print a cartoon of Allah, burn a US flag, etc. etc.), so clearly we place deep importance in them, but I'm beginning to see that important symbols are more than stand-ins for things we value already (like faith or nationalism)...they are actually something we NEED to get on with our lives when faith or nationalism have failed us. Symbols unto themselves, without any particular ideology or history attached, fill a universal need for humans. I'm not exactly sure what the essence of that need is, but I believe it's something the mocking military men would crumble without.

Consider this piece by our artists Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev. It's an intentionally humorous photograph, cropped to emphasize the ridiculousness of its story, but the more I think about why it came to be, the more I think it provides insight into something very profound about mankind.

This "Horse" didn't exist 20 years ago. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the ubiquitous statues of Lenin were toppled throughout the 'Stans, leaving just the platforms they had once stood on. Slowly, and independently, though, the people of the various villages began to suggest they wanted to build new statues in their place. But of what? Of whom? Throughout Central Asia now, you'll find statues to local heroes...some ancient, or not so ancient, warrior that the elders hurriedly researched and concluded was the new symbol of their values and heritage (now that Lenin was no longer forced upon them). Across the 'Stans, it didn't really matter what this new hero looked like as an individual (hence the cropping of the photo). The characters are fungible (and many of the likenesses only guesses). What mattered was that some symbol be erected to fill the void.


What void, you ask? I'm not exactly sure, but I do know the ribbons tied to the horse's legs represent an ancient (I believe Shamanistic) tradition of making a mini-pilgrimage to honor a marriage or death or other such event to a special/sacred place where one would pray and mark the event. As evidence of that journey, the honoring folks would tie a ribbon (you'll see hundreds tied to certain places throughout Kyrgyzstan), although increasingly now they'll take a photo as well. Given that the character riding this horse in this photo was barely, if at all, known to the locals 20 years ago, the fact that this statue has so quickly risen to become such a destination suggests it fills some human need.

In other words, the artworks the Monuments Men saved and returned are more than mere symbols of European tastes or fashions, but rather something far more essential to being human. When we journey to foreign museums or have our photos taken next to this or that statue, we often feel we're simply checking off another item on our "been there, done that" list, but we're actually participating in an ancient ritual (think about it...the way we'll pose in front of any old milestone in some two-horse town, even if we'd hardly register that same structure in some other setting...it's a compulsion). We gravitate toward such symbols. We build them if we go some place that doesn't have any.

There's something reassuring about such symbols being where they belong, as well. Repatriating the looted paintings restores the balance that the war had disturbed. If they're not in their right place, we can't rest somehow.

Yes, I've reach that rambling point and have to wrap this up. I realize I'm mixing a few ideas here...feel free to help me sort them out.

20 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Provocative post.......Being a westerner and thus not being privvy to the humor and history in the horse photo, I just find it moving and compelling. Did you ever see Robert Bresson's "Lancelot," where most of the jousting action is filmed from the perspective of the horses'hooves--it's evocative of that. The red knots seem to be a binding of the pilgrim to the power of the icon, a way the individual can accrue some spritual energy, as well as contributing a bit of their own essence to the horse, thus making the statue's power more intensified for the next pilgrims. It's cool and a vivd depiction of the power of symbols of which you speak. Maybe in these shamanistically-rooted Central Asian cultures, the horse actually is more powerful as a symbol than the rider anyway and so it's not as ludicrous as we think. Maybe the horse actually is the object --archetypically speaking--and it really doesn't matter so much about the human on top.--just a guess--

12/19/2006 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Maybe in these shamanistically-rooted Central Asian cultures, the horse actually is more powerful as a symbol than the rider anyway and so it's not as ludicrous as we think. Maybe the horse actually is the object --archetypically speaking--and it really doesn't matter so much about the human on top.--just a guess--

An excellent guess, I would venture. Horses are indeed very important in Central Asian culture. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

The artists shared with me the intended humor of the piece (they do indeed think it ludicrous that this statue has take on the importance it has), but they are remarkably sensitive and very actively involved in the study of their culture and its symbols, so perhaps it's the level of humor one only comes to find in matters one knows extremely well.

12/19/2006 10:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for the nice affirmation of my guess, E.(to get another sort of picture of this complex horse culture everyone who hasn't should also check out "Genghis Blues" and watch it a couple times... I think it is stunning)--anon 10:15:15(that appelation looks Biblical)

12/19/2006 10:41:00 AM  
Anonymous bnon said...

Does this mean that I shouldn't be able to sleep until Italy returns all its John Sloans and George Bellows paintings?

Not all (or even a significant number) of artworks become symbols and of the ones that do, it's hard to say exactly what they symbolize. What is the Mona Lisa a symbol of? To Americans it could be snooty Continental connoiseurship.To others it could be beauty. Or sexuality. Or money. So a symbol's meaning is fungible, but I don't think, for an individual, the conviction a symbol embodies is fungible at all. A villager who replaced a statue of Stalin with a statue of something else probably still despises Stalin and reveres, as he did all along, the village hero who ended up on the pedastel.

Ed, I think you are trying to say art is valuable for many reasons. I think art's symbolic value is pretty limited, and not really an intrinsic part of what I love about art. In the social realm, I think people need symbols because people crave order, and symbols of the kind I think you are talking about, crystallize a narrative that appeals to a broad range of people. A flag, the Vietnam monument. The way a symbol embodies a potent and easy-to-digest narrative is what I think people crave, not the symbols themselves. And I think of symbols a little negatively: I would say we are susceptible to their simplifying power, rather than that we crave them. I'm not sure why you are romaticizing symbols. You must have taken a semiotics course! Did you confuse the sign with the signfier or the signifier with the sign? I can never remember...

12/19/2006 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Not all (or even a significant number) of artworks become symbols and of the ones that do, it's hard to say exactly what they symbolize.

That's kind of my point, though, bnon. The fact that they can become symbols (and that if they don't, we'll choose or make a symbol out of something else) is what interests me here.

villager who replaced a statue of Stalin with a statue of something else probably still despises Stalin and reveres, as he did all along, the village hero who ended up on the pedastel.

Grrrr ... obviously I didn't make that clear enough. Important distinctions here. Lenin, who is not universally despised, not Stalin, was the original statue. AND, more importantly, the local hero wasn't revered all along...he was dug up from the dustbins of history and elevated to a place of reverence. Again, the point of the post.

I think people need symbols because people crave order

I think that's it, yes.

And I think of symbols a little negatively: I would say we are susceptible to their simplifying power, rather than that we crave them.

Not across the board, I'd say. I suspect we are suspect of certain symbols but embrace others...just not the same ones our next-door neighbors do, though, perhaps.

I'm not sure why you are romaticizing symbols. You must have taken a semiotics course!

No. Never did. I've come to this line of thought via the example posted...why does it have any importance for the villagers at all? This character meant virtually nothing to them two decades ago.

12/19/2006 11:35:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Interesting that the visitors to the horse left red ribbons. Here in the States someone would just put a red dot on it.

12/19/2006 11:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Chris Rywalt said...

I think bnon is wrong about works of art "becoming" symbols. All art is symbol. That's what art is. To say that the Mona Lisa could be a "symbol" of "snooty Continental connoiseurship" is an incorrect reading of the word "symbol." If not incorrect, then at least inappropriate in this context.

We are a species of symbols. Our time-binding through transmission of symbols is one of the things that makes us unique. Paintings and sculptures are just one subset of the symbols we use to transmit information through time.

It took me a long time to figure out that the three things I do most in my life -- painting, writing, and computer programming -- are all, in essence, the same thing. I am a manipulator of symbols. I take symbols and I recombine them in new and different ways. That's what I do.

Repatriating works of art is symbolic on two levels: First, it's symbolic of American respect for people for whom they fought. They were saying, we not only care for your lives, and your ways of life; we care about the transmissions that your people have given all of humanity.

Second, repatriating art is symbolic on the level of the art itself. The symbols are returned to their rightful places.

Humans literally need symbols to be human. Without them we're some other species. The symbols of the culture returned, the owners can return to being human.

12/19/2006 12:06:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

It took me a long time to figure out that the three things I do most in my life -- painting, writing, and computer programming -- are all, in essence, the same thing. I am a manipulator of symbols. I take symbols and I recombine them in new and different ways. That's what I do.

The thing I do most is sleep. And I spend most of that time recombining symbols in new and different ways. No wonder I'm still tired when I wake up.

12/19/2006 12:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Chris Rywalt said...

Sleeping is not something I do. It's something I am. I pursue a good nap the way others pursue capturing a color on canvas.

12/19/2006 12:16:00 PM  
Anonymous bnon said...

Okay, I meant the values inherent in the villager's digging up of the hero are ones he must have held all along, before and after Lenin. The particular hero is not so important, nay, he's symbolic. Perhaps you are arguing that the villager is a dupe of humanity's need for a sympbol, any symbol?

Oh, gosh. I've forgotten why any of this is important and I feel like I'm just picking nits. A sure sign of the real (not symbolic) importance of lunch!

12/19/2006 12:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

We canadians are so bad or ungenerous with documenting works, but as anyone heard of Dominique Blain?

http://www.uqam.ca/nouvelles/2004/04-026.htm

(can't find english translation)

This work "Monuments" is a large replica of the wood case that served to transport the "Assumption" by Titien during first world war. It is accompanied
with about 30, enlarged, negatives of photographs transferred into paintings (aka Warhol), of the venetian collections being hidden and transported through 14-18 war (you see people transporting cases (including that very Titien) or altars stucked behind sacks, and the big pun is the art is always hidden, though you "know" or "expect" it's there judging by the individual titles
of the "canvases").

In a sense Blain's artistic gesture is sort of suggesting a symbol (Monument) for the actions perpetrated during the wars to save art, but it is also about how we implement value to objects, wrether it's for a symbol or for art or using a banal wood case to commemorate war events. What does the wood case stands for? Is it as valuable or even more valuable than a Titien because it speaks the memory of people who were willing to risks their life for it? Or is Blain presenting this case as a model of absurdity, pinpointing at the process of value itself?

Personally I tend to be interested by awareness, separating the deeds from representation. Which I guess...I may be wrong...was the whole idea behind islam art before that cartoon thing turned out.


David a dit...
>>>Interesting that the visitors >>>to the horse left red ribbons. >>>Here in the States someone >>>would just put a red dot on it.

Haha !!


Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com

12/19/2006 01:08:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Did they tie ribbons to the Lenin statue?

12/19/2006 03:54:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

That's a good question, Tim.

Bambino says no. When I asked why, he said "Because that was different." They would still tie ribbons to trees and other objects in the special places, but not to statues of Lenin. There was a good deal less tolerance for shamanistic practices during the Soviet days.

Which does raise an interesting question about the difference between the new statues and the Lenin ones though...although I'm under deadline and can't work out all what that means now...ideas?

12/19/2006 04:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, clearly the Lenin statues were more top-down, and the current statues more bottom-up. So the people feel closer to the current statues than the Lenin ones. Even if the feeling is based on something of an illusion.

Also, if tying the ribbons has some shamanistic purpose, I can imagine it's more useful to tie them to the statue of some ancient Asian tribal leader than to a politician who lived a hundred years ago. Clearly the old tribal leader has more pull in the spirit world.

12/19/2006 05:14:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

If we had a statue of George Bush, someone would tie his shoelaces together.

12/19/2006 05:40:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

:)

first of all leave the damn horse alone

second of all

as much as i remember i never seen people would tie ribbons on Lenin, cause he was a contemporary hero (or something like that)

people would tie ribbons to somethinng connected to religion, history, respect, hopes.

any other questions, i would direct to my mom, she would be more than happy to explain the rest of it :)

12/19/2006 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

not to backtrack -- but -- symbols: we respond intuitively, instinctively to things and sometimes can't even identify why. We're moved to make offerings of sorts.

Imagine ribbons as currency, expensive and special. It's 1400 AD (indulge my conjecture): if you can afford ribbons it suggests you are 'blessed' -- you tie them in your daughter's hair, you gift them to your wife who also wears them, perhaps you can even afford them for your (living) horse.

Now something impresses you so deeply you are moved to tie this symbol of your 'blessings' to it. Almost like an offering. Almost like in the old church in which resides the icon of a saint whom many credit with healings. Crutches crowd the shelves surrounding the smoky candle-lit image, but hanging from the image's frame itself: thousands of ribbons with tiny silver charms attached, purchased from vendors who sold them for this purpose. Each charm is a prayer for healing or a giving of thanks. Each was likely purchased by someone who needed the money for food or clothing.

You bow in a sense to the thing that somehow seems greater than you, even if you can't explain why.

Just a guess, anyway --

12/19/2006 06:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill Gusky sez:
symbols: we respond intuitively, instinctively to things and sometimes can't even identify why.

Certainly our nervous systems are affected by symbols in ways we don't understand.

That's what art is all about.

12/19/2006 06:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Wait a minute...

Art is also about doing meaningless things out of ribbons:

http://www.espace-sculpture.com/Artefact/artefact2004/anglais/goulet-a.html


Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com

12/19/2006 10:18:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Maybe what Ed_ is saying (or trying to get at) is that symbols are enough in themselves and we, as artists and art lovers should be less concerned about content and more focused on providing something deserving of lasting respect (and communicating lasting respect as well)

(see how I got my pet idea into the discussion! and on topic too.)

12/19/2006 10:31:00 PM  

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