Interviewsand Articles


Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: Some Reflections on Joseph Campbell and Art

by Richard Whittaker, Mar 6, 2013



Encountering an art exhibit in the context of Joseph Campbell’s thought is a welcome change (The Artist’s Way, Cherry Art Center, Carmel, California). Boiled down, Campbell’s views on art can be summarized in the words of his wife, Jean Erdman, “The way of the mystic and the way of the artist are very much alike.” In talking with artists it’s not hard to find some agreement about that. But it’s been a long time since such a view could be found in any fashionable writing about art. In 1938 Max Beckman could say, “In my opinion all important things in art have always originated from the deepest feeling about the mystery of Being.” And speaking of his work in the early 1950s Mark Rothko could say, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” In those days it was possible to speak in such terms without irony.
     In 1967 a Bruce Nauman neon wall piece showed up. It looks a lot like a beer sign hanging in a bar window; it reads: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. I can’t help giving Nauman credit for his temerity in making even an ironic mention of art’s high calling. However five years earlier, Warhol’s soup cans had arrived. And by 1967 Nauman's ironic play was as far as an artist in the game was willing to go, it seems. Still, I can’t help believing that, in some sense, Nauman meant to affirm those words. But Warhol had lifted the curtain to show us how things really work. It was about the money. And besides, postmodernism was on its way over the horizon ready to demolish all "grand narratives."
     In one of his last lectures Campbell said, “In my writing and my thinking and my work I’ve thought of myself as addressing artists and poets and writers.” So bringing together a collection of artists and their works as a way of revisiting Joseph Campbell’s The Way of Art is perfectly reasonable. But is there anybody in the artworld today who still cares about such things?
     With regard to all the sacred cows that went down under the postmodern tsunami, one has to give Campbell credit. He saw that the guiding mythologies of the past had long since become archaic, and that the God to come had not yet shown Herself. What we dearly needed, he said, were new myths to guide us. He thought they might come through artists.  
     So where do we stand today? Maybe that’s impossible to say. Anything goes. On the other hand, how many artists of standing today openly ponder the deep questions of meaning that were central to Joseph Campbell’s thought. There must be some, but only Enrique Martínez Celaya comes to mind. In his meditation on art and value (Guide) he writes, “Many people accept bad art because they don’t know what to believe, and what they call open-mindedness is either numbness or confusion. The art that can be a guide is not the art experience that most people seek.” His words ring all too true.
     I find it puzzling. The idea that such questions are passé is a curious one. Are we really past all that? It seems to be the prevailing feeling. Many much admired scientists like Richard Dawkinds have told us that we're the inventors of any idea of inherent meaning or purpose. And we do have smart phones. 
On the Other Hand
Although I didn’t watch the SuperBowl this year [2013], I did check in from time to time on the radio. I was listening when the broadcast went dead. Goodness!
     It wasn’t long before I learned that the stadium lights had gone out in the middle of the world’s greatest media event. It was a strange moment— the incongruity of Reality suddenly crashing though one of our most popular and hyperbolic distractions.
     I think the memory comes to mind because it illustrates something related to the thought of Joseph Campbell. If the lights had stayed off, the shock of that abrupt arrival of Reality might have sunk in a little deeper. And are we any more equipped today to face the dark with equanimity than we were when Campbell was writing? Campbell was telling us we needed something in a new form to help us face the ontological gap between our lives of distraction and Reality—some kind of knowledge, perhaps, a knowledge that isn't contained in all the information we have today.  
     When our distraction is taken away what happens to our comfortable sophistication? The power of our abstract freedom from the old questions is not so powerful. When the lights go out, one discovers that.
     So what could art provide in the meantime? At its best, it comes from and speaks to the pathless land of our experience, the deeper layers hidden beneath the preoccupations of our daily lives. Campbell thought that art and art making could, at times, deliver us to that "immovable point in oneself that is the way of opening, the part that looks with neither desire nor yearning at the object."
    Here would be a place of real equanimity, a place that's also the goal of Buddhist practice, and perhaps the hope of all traditional religious ways.      

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.    


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