Symbols, Art and Reality

Symbols are vessels of meaning. Nature produces some few intentional symbols – like flowers that attract bees with certain colours or shapes, or the vivid cautionary hues of poisonous frogs. But only humans can learn and create symbols arbitrarily, and in fact need to do so. Mankind produces and utilises a volume of symbols that vastly exceeds that of nature.

Symbols, in their most explicit form, convey specific meanings. Each letter of the alphabet is a symbol, and while each letter of the English alphabet is somewhat contextual, their implications remain fairly precise. Words, constructed out of letters, are more ambiguous. In many instances the vagaries of language are more of a feature than a bug. A sentence, constructed out of words, is even more vague. A sentence has all the imprecision of each word within it, and more sub-textual, contextual and syntactic vagaries to boot. Again, this is hardly a failure of language, although it is undesirable in some contexts. In exacting fields of interest, like science, mathematics, or engineering, effort is made to reduce the vagaries of language. Words are turned into pure symbols as much as possible, with each term having a single precise meaning. Sentences which are intended to carry precise information are constructed like mathematical formulas, with no room for misinterpretation, or any interpretation at all. Jargon is precise and therefore narrowly useful.

This is not the aim of art. Art is not a series of precise symbols meant to convey a specific meaning. Vagaries are par for the course in art. Art does not tackle the problems that have complete and perfect solutions, it tackles problems that are too highly interconnected, problems which are the sum total of all of our pursuits, rather than any one of our pursuits. Art tackles the totality of life.

“Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various “codes”, into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.”
-Italo Calvino

Art does not break things down to their constituent pieces. In science we seek a kind of “bottom-up”, low-level understanding of things. In art we seek a high-level understanding, we try to grasp the completeness of things.

Symbols are a means of reducing complexity and imprecision (complexity and imprecision may be different ways of considering the same thing, imprecision being merely our inability to convey or understand the details of something complex). Again, this seems useful to domains like science. In other areas of our lives, however, we are concerned with “experience”. Experience is the sum total of all of our thoughts and senses. If we break it down to its constituent parts, we find ourselves considering only the constituent parts, which, like a single word removed from a sentence, lack context and constructive meaning. As a symphony is not the part played by any one instrument, so experience is not any one facet of experience. Art aims to convey experience to us, that is, it aims to envelop us, to involve the entirety of us in perceiving it.

Symbols are irreducible, or are at least closer to irreducibility than real things. In reality, there are so many facets to any given object that we are not concerned with at any given time. From our perspective, there is a lot of excess information in reality. Symbols contain only the information that we care about, they simply describe one, or very few features, which are exaggerated, and no superfluous features.

Symbols are inherent to our thinking. In our minds we construct mental models, these describe the workings of systems, the relationships between objects in the world. For the objects themselves we substitute symbolic representations. These symbolic representations capture the information we most care about. Our mental symbol for an apple might contain the properties “edible”, “sweet”, “delicious”. Our mental symbol will exclude many other properties that we are either ignorant of, or uninterested in. We would be better served by a complete understanding of apples, doubtless we will find ourselves in the rare situation where the most obscure fact will benefit us, but we are of course limited in both computational power and storage capacity.

Human Symbols and Literature
Symbolic humans embody one particular virtue (or vice), and do so in the extreme. Jesus and the Buddha are symbols of compassion. They display this one virtue to the exclusion of many other character traits, and so they become simplified humans, lacking much of the complexity that most of us contain. Their thought processes involve fewer contradictions, they do not have so many conflicting motives at play. Jesus and the Buddha can be described in fewer words than any typical human being.


We can think about human symbols in terms of systems and chaos. We can say a human is chaotic because his actions are fairly sensitive to the situation. That is, his actions will vary greatly based on the environmental conditions around him, and indeed the emotional conditions within him. And so it is very hard to predict his actions from simplified models. This is less true of human symbols. We could predict The behaviour of Jesus very easily with a very simplistic model – we know that in most situations he will display compassion and forgiveness. We know that a normal human being will only display these traits in very particular circumstances, depending on the minutiae of his personality. Simplistic models can better account for the behaviour of human symbols, there are fewer cases where their actions will deviate from the prediction of the model.

Complete and utter disregard for practicality is part of the appeal of these figures. It is kind of awesome to behold someone, through sheer determination, maintaining a particular character in the face of all of life’s challenges.

In stoicism we see a more sober approach to becoming the ideal human. Marcus Aurelius tells us that the ideal stoic pays attention to practicality (as much as he must), and acts in accordance with nature, which implies an over-arching pragmatism. The stoic ideal seems less absolute, however from Aurelius we also get this passage:

No one is so fortunate as not to have standing round his death-bed some people who welcome the fate coming on him. Was he the earnest sage? Then maybe there will be someone at his final moment saying to himself “we can breathe again now, rid of this schoolmaster. He was not hard on any one of us, but I could feel his silent criticism of us all.”

To those of us favourably disposed towards the ideals of stoicism, the figure of the earnest sage is heroic. All of his heroic energy is turned towards becoming a simpler person, observing only “few and fundamental” doctrines. This urge to throw off the complexities of life is intriguing. For a thoughtful and contemplative person complexity is typically a welcome challenge for ones mind. Perhaps this urge to simplicity is a kind of illusory platonic ideal, perhaps we find the ideal appealing only because of its contrast with reality?

Lev Tolstoy was a conflicted figure both in his life and his writing. He expressed many noble ideals, and was considered a hero by many in his time. However, he did not completely manage to live up to his ideals, although in fairness very few people ever do. Though his writing conveyed his aspirations towards a perfection of the spirit, the events of his life show the typical drama of human existence. Tolstoy the man did not manage to become a symbol of his own ideals. But because of this failure we find him a very relatable figure. He has the complexity and imperfection of a normal person, not the limited personhood of a symbolic religious figure.

In his writing we find the same conflict. At his best, his writing is realistic, that is, it captures the nuance and complexity of life. His characters have a complete internal life to them that is utterly believable. Tolstoy’s less brilliant works do not show this complexity. They strike me as merely a means for him to assail the reader with various judgements on society, or thoughts born of Schopenhauer’s bleak philosophies. In all of his works we are exposed to the deeper thoughts and philosophies of his characters, in some of his stories this is the whole point, and the characters exist primarily to express these ideas directly to the reader, while in other stories these ideas exist as a natural result of the inner life of the character, and are expressed not with the intent of convincing the reader, but to illustrate the perspective of that character.

A few of his characters, even in his better works, are unbelievable and unrelatable symbols of purity. It is the characters who, like Tolstoy himself, try and fail to be symbols of purity, with whom we share the closest camaraderie. If it is possible to write great fiction with simpler symbolic figures and ideas, Tolstoy did not manage it, and those works in which he attempted it are generally considered his weakest.

Visual Symbols
Gustav Klimt has been a big inspiration for me in my art, and I have always thought of his work as being about finding visual symbols. I feel this is where the power of his work comes from. He was classically trained, and had great technical ability, and yet he focused on line and flat shapes. This approach is, in a sense, a reduction. A lot of his work feels this way, the elements I find most striking seem as if they could be drawn no other way. He pulls out the elements which seem essential and accentuates them, and ignores everything else.

He creates an image of a man that somehow becomes an image of all men. The features he conveys seem almost universal. A closeup of the male head in his painting “the kiss” shows this universality.


It is such a perfect and elegant piece of design that many artists, even the brilliant Egon Schiele, cannot draw a male head at that kind of angle without thinking of Klimt’s work.


Klimt’s paintings are also very flat looking, there is little light and shadow, and little sense of depth. This is another reduction in complexity, one that likely grew from his drawings focused on line. Lines are inherently flat, and are inherently abstractions, they can suggest form, but they are not form. In a way, creating “flat” looking images like this is very true to the medium. The gold background of Klimt’s most famous works are reminiscent of the mosaics of the byzantine period, like the depiction of Jesus above. This suggests an attempt to replicate the importance, or the sense of importance, that those religious works carried. One interesting distinction is that while Klimt’s work contained many symbolic elements, the meaning often remains ambiguous. The expression and pose of the woman in The Kiss, for example, is somewhat difficult to read, she is turned away from the man, but she is smiling and embracing him. We couldn’t say that she is not enjoying the embrace, but there is a kind of distance between the figures, or at least a complex relationship between them, that one might not expect from a painting titled “The Kiss”. So while we could say that Klimt employs symbols, the meaning does not appear to be symbolic, that is, we could not easily summarise the meaning of this work, it is not easily contained in words.

There are more direct examples of symbols in visual art, works in which the symbolic elements provide the meaning. Taken from or inspired by real objects, but which have been rendered in such a way that some defining characteristics are exaggerated while others are reduced or ignored. A prime example of this kind of symbol is the paleolithic Venus, shown below. Particular physical traits are exaggerated, others are ignored. This kind of symbol is a simplification of reality, and the traits included or excluded define the meaning.


The appeal of this kind of simplification has been explored by neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. Exaggerated versions of characteristics to which we are accustomed cause more intense stimulation. Could this also be true of human symbols? Symbols, unlike life, are pure distillations of a given virtue, vice, character or intention. They are appealing precisely because they are not vague, complex or multi faceted. Jesus is striking and effective because his love and compassion are not bounded. In some ways this might seem to suggest that our minds construct platonic ideals against which we measure the things we perceive.

I suspect that there is some part of the brain dedicated to detecting meaning or importance, but which cannot decipher what that meaning is. The function of this is to draw our attention to things that we may need to be aware of. Some part of the appeal of art, and I think visual art in particular, is the stimulation of this sense. This is a kind of illusory meaning, it tickles our brains and makes us pay attention, it makes us read deeply into a work.

If we think of meaning in a practical and intellectual way, as providing some insight about reality which improves our lives, then I think we will find art somewhat lacking in this kind of meaning. The meaning we get from art is a more complete experience, involving all of our being, not just our conscious minds. Art can be meaningful to us in a way which is completely impossible to convey in plain language. In fact, it would be a failing if the meaning could be contained in plain language. Why then convey it through art? In order to make it more convincing or alluring? Then it is manipulative, it is propaganda. In order to make it obscured and vague? Then it must not be important enough to convey precisely.

“The less accessible a work is to the intellect, the greater it is.”

An attempt to deliver a message will also produce a work that fails to be as “complete” as art should be. If art is capturing or imitating life, it will be filled with details and subtleties, with shades of grey and ambiguity. As in life, these finer details will not be entirely disconnected from the central concept, everything is connected. Viewing a complete work will be like considering the facts one gleans from their own life. They will consider each detail naturally, as if it were real and inevitable. For the work constructed of symbols, and for the purpose of delivering a message, the viewer will instead consider the details as if they were placed there by the artist. The viewer will be attempting to reduce the elements of the work down to its intended meaning, instead of understanding it as an indivisible whole.

Some works, of an autobiographical or highly personal nature, will of course prompt the audience to think about the author. But even here, if the work is to be art rather than textbook, the author should not use his art as a vehicle for a message about himself. He should be exploring, he should be interpreting himself not as a symbol, but as a real person. He should convey to us not the mere facts, but the experiences that explain the facts – the emotional truth.

Art should be indivisible, if a work can be reduced down to a simpler form, then there were irrelevant details. If a work is a vehicle for a message the artist wants to distribute, a message that is less than all the elements of the work, then he should have distributed it in its lesser form. Further, if the audience is in some sense deciphering the work, finding the meaning in it, then it must contain elements that are confusing or unnecessary to that meaning. This would seem to undermine the goal of distributing a certain message, a goal that I find suspect already.

This is not to say that an artist should not have as his goal the distribution of an idea, but it should come in the form of the recreation of his own experiences which led him to that idea. If the experiences which led him to a given idea were in fact a series of reasoned thoughts, then he should convey each of those reasoned thoughts directly. This might be considered an essay and not art, but perhaps art should be reserved for things which cannot be transmitted in other ways? The word “idea” even suggest something concrete and utterable, perhaps art should be for the unutterable? Why use indirect forms to convey a direct idea, why not communicate clearly if your message is best served by that kind of communication?

A potentially apocryphal quote goes something like this – Anna Pavlova, following a wonderful performance, was asked the meaning of the dance. She replied, “If I could say it, do you think I should have danced it?”

If something can be stated straight-forwardly, and understood as easily, then it probably should be. Unless it is of no use to the recipient, in which case it should not be transmitted to him at all. How then are we to meaningfully discuss art, if it is used to convey things which lie beyond language?

“It’s a question of sudden flashes of illumination – like scales falling from the eyes; not in relation to the parts, however, but to the whole, to the infinite, to what does not fit in to conscious thought.”
Andrey Tarkovsky

Tarkovsky, in his book “Sculpting in Time”, talks about art conveying the infinite. Infinite here meaning all-encompassing rather than extending indefinitely. Perhaps art, and to a lesser degree philosophy, are on the opposite end of a spectrum from science. Science breaks the world down into its composite parts, and it must do this because its mission is intellectual understanding, and our minds can only handle so much complexity in this way. Art, on the other hand, does not break down or simplify, the whole point of it is to present to us an entire experience. Art may speak to our intellect, but it also speaks to our emotions, our intuitions, it speaks to us as complete, multifaceted beings.

We sometimes try to deny it, but as humans we are composite beings. We consist of many parts working together, and the sum total, not any one part, is human. This sum total creature interacts with the world, and has experiences. The intellectual mind is, to some degree, disconnected from experience. The intellectual mind reflects on past experience, but is not directly involved in present experience, except in the direction of attention and focus. The intellectual mind is powerful in that it can act in accordance with logic, but from the point of view of the complete human, it is not the only important element. It is also the intellectual mind that is able to formulate abstract ideas and concepts, and transmissible values, and so the intellectual mind has decided that of all the various parts of the human creature, it is the most important. It is the intellectual mind that speaks, and so it is the intellectual mind that is heard. It suggests its own primacy to itself.

But at the end of the day, the primary drive of the intellectual mind is to improve the conditions of its own being, and the condition of the entire human, and this improvement means better experience. If the vast majority of this experience is not even accessible to the intellectual mind, why does it seek it? The complete human mind knows that it is a composite being, even if our intellectual selves don’t often admit it.

In “The Doors of Perception”, Aldous Huxley describes his experience while under the influence of mescalin, which, he supposes, prevents the brain from engaging in its typical activity – rendering the world into a collection of symbols which our conscious minds are able to comprehend. He relates the concept of the dharma-body. What is the dharma-body? “The hedge at the bottom of the garden”, replies the zen master. The dharma body is anything perceived by one freed from the normal sense of self. The most important, primal meanings we attach to symbols are “me” and “not me”. Without these symbols in play, one does not distinguish between himself and the world. The hedge at the bottom of the garden is as much a part of him as his own hands. Our conception of the “self” as a distinct, solid entity is the basis for all of our symbolic interpretations of the world. Each symbol is defined in relation to ourselves; everything is understood in terms of the utility we may extract from it. A chair has meaning to us because we can sit on it, an apple has meaning because we can eat it. If I owned an orchard the apple would also mean to me the source of more apple trees.

It is the aim of many contemplative practices to pull back the curtain on experience, to take a look at the sensations that enter our minds before they are turned into simplified symbols. In these altered states one is not constantly judging, measuring, discriminating, instead one is aware of the experience itself, rather than translating that experience into symbols. These states can show us how much information we have been ignoring, they can help us to see the vast difference in complexity between the world we experience and the tiny subset of experience, the world of symbols that we are able to reason and think about.

“We can never dispense with language and the other symbol systems; for it is by means of them, and only by their means, that we have raised ourselves above the brutes, to the level of human beings. But we can easily become the victims as well as the beneficiaries of these systems. We must learn how to handle words effectively; but at the same time we must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction.”
Aldous Huxley

Can art help us with this goal? I think it can, and not by explaining the world using vague or uncertain symbols, as a naive counterpoint to the precision of science. Rather, it can draw our attention to things we have not noticed, at least not consciously, and it can address us at levels beyond our conscious reasoning minds. In this sense the enjoyment of art can be a transcendent experience, even more so today than at any time in the past, in the “information age”. Perhaps we should call it the age of knowledge, or the age of symbols. Staring at a screen I can acquire incredible amounts of knowledge in a short period, but the breadth of experience is lower than ever before. All of the knowledge gained in this way is second-hand, travelling not only through my own filter of symbolic representations, but through somebody else’s in addition. This activity lacks even the physical stimulation of holding a book or turning a page, let alone hearing the voice of a human being, or travelling somewhere to hear them speak. Technology today connects us through the narrowest channels possible, I find myself thankful for any art that can stand as a counterpoint to this increasingly symbolic world.


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