Art as myth

The development of semiotics in the 20th century revealed much about ideology in mass culture. Structuralist Roland Barthes’ texts on the matter are very much products of their times, yet many still have a troubling modern-day relevance. Barthes’ Mythologies demonstrates the possibilty to find meaning through the ‘trivia’ of everyday life. He claims to want to challenge the ‘innoncence’ and ‘naturalness’ of cultural texts and practices, as they are capable of producing a multitude of supplementary meanings, or ‘connotations’.Although objects, gestures and practices have a certain utilitarian function, they are not resistant to the imposition of meaning. Barthes wants to suspend consideration of function, and concentrate rather on what things mean and how they function as signs. Mythologies is a study of the ways in which mass culture constructs this mythological reality and encourages conformity to its own values.

Barthes’ analysis of signs reveals that there are very few ‘innoncent’ objects, that almost everything is ‘coded’ (assigned meaning). Barthes arrives at this conclusion based on his theory of myth: that a form (expanded from Saussure’s sound-image, which was limited to linguistics) and a concept create mythologies: sign systems that render one dominant meaning (or ‘signification’). For the receiver, this signification arrives automatically and smoothly, thus seemingly denying the intentional re-coding. Barthes believes that this constant creation of myth is how a culture invents its beliefs and narratives, and is able to find meaning in the world.

This premise draws a particular parallel in our contemporary society: for it is my hypothesis that our culture now locates meaning through mythological art (whether fine, commercial, popular, industrial etc.). Has art truly become myth?

In order to ‘read’ or deconstruct myth, Barthes suggests, one must (1) accept the myth as a cultural construction, thus emptying its meaning; (2) rear the myth as full, identifying all possible signs and significations; and finally (3) recognize the signifier as both empty and full, capable of signifying many things, yet with only one clear, dominant meaning. It is my argument that such a deconstruction can render art as myth.

Having realized art as a structured cultural phenomenon, and having emptied its direct and apparent meaning, it is possible to identify all its possible significations. Interestingly enough, I find that art reveals many diametrically opposed significations: expression and oppression, bias and acceptance, individual and society, creativity and confinement, and freedom and convention, among others. Art signifies the de-politicization of our culture, for even the most political of pieces cease to cause a stir among the masses. Art signifies creativity, a hope for a better future, ‘the American dream’, a utopian ideal of happiness. Art signifies powerlessness to the masses, limitation to cultural normative values (child pornography, for example, is taboo and unacceptable in most circles, while it can theoretically be defended as art). Yet, as noted in Mythologies, only one perspective, one signification, can emerge as instant, clear, dominant and true, while the others become distorted and fade away from association. So how can one identify the ‘true’ signification of art?

If, as Barthes asserts, “myth transforms history into nature” (121), then it is my assumption that the original significations of art began its transformation into myth, and thus created its contemporary, ‘true’ signification. So what is the historical signification of art?

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Traditionally, art served as a method of capturing the uncapturable: it was a communcations device used to depict events that cold otherwise not be conveyed. Thus throughout most of art history, images functioned as a still camera does today – displaying frozen moments in time (wars, great discoveries) and political, mythical and religious figures – acting as a sort of visual history. The artists were seen as any other working-class professionals, like the blacksmith or the shoemaker, neither an elite nor destitute position. The purchase of art was limited to upp-erlcass patrons, to whom itwas the same as any other collection of stampls, rifles or gold: a commodity. What art of these periods had in common, however, was that it bared social, cultural, political and/or religious connotations (as seen in the religious iconography, biblical depictions, portraiture of heads of state, working-class landscapes, for example). Art, therefore, served as a commodity possessing a function (either in its ‘message’ or economically); art was always of value. Thus the meaning, or signification, of art historically was its lack of freedom, its limitations and enslavement to convention.

Phases in art history, such as the Impressionist movement and the invention of the camera, eliminated the need for art as a recording device, and thus started a counter-cultural movement away from convention. It was then during the 19th century that art was robbed of its traditional meaning (of restriction and conformity) and re-assigned its current mythological one (of freedom).

Although contemporary art still bears social, cultural, political and/or religious connotations, which may be stronger than before, the convention of art production has changed. The artists of today is seen as unusual, unique, gifted, trouble, quirky, eccentric, etc.: in short, a non-conformist. The art industry is no longer confied to working professional and upper-class patrons, but rather to a large milieu made available to the public for both production and trade. Art is no longer seen as a learned skill, but rather as a mode of communication.

Essentially, the visual appearance of art bears a secondary, distorted importance, while its foremost signification is the boundless freedom of art production and expression itself. Thus it is not the signification of content that matters, but rather that of the medium itself. As Barthes himself wrote, “myth is not defined by the object of the message, but by the way in which it utters this message” (109). Or as Marshall McLuhan wrote, “the medium is the message”.

Art, then, is automatically and synonymously associated with freedom, and has ebcome a culturally constructed myth in which we can located meaning.

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