Wednesday, March 08, 2006
The work of art stands up by itself, and nothing else does. It achieves something which has often been promised by society, but always delusively. -E.M. Foster
In these blogs, I am constantly talking about the power of image in our psychological lives and in our culture. Psychological life, contends James Hillman, is thoroughly imaginative; all our actions, fantasies, dreams are in fact poetic acts. We only imagine that they are literal realties that must be dissected and verified through some kind of microscopic lens. Hillman writes of image:
An image always seems more profound (archetypal), more powerful (Potential), and more beautiful (theophanic) than the comprehension of it; hence the feeling, while recording a dream, of seeing through a glass darkly (Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account 18).
But the image Hillman speaks of is not literal, not an optically rendered photograph or a beautifully modulated sound, nor even the rhythmic beat of a poem. An image is not a tangible thing that exists in the material world. It is a subtle body existing in a world between the world of the senses and the world of pure spirit. That is the world that the Henri Corbin calls the mundus imaginalis, a world that is not imaginary in the sense of unreal. The world of images is real.
An image is a weave of subtleties that encompass texture, emotion, content. An image is not what we look at; it is what we see through, as seeing through a lens or a mirror. It has the ability to change us, emotionally, psychologically, perhaps even spiritually. It gives us emotion and context and supplies us with the textures of the world around us. It is the subtle stuff of dream, real in their own world.
I suppose I am contemplating these rather deep ideas this morning because I heard on the news last night that Gordon Parks, the great photographer had died yesterday at the age of 93. The news of Parks’ death placed me into a reverie of the importance of art in accessing what is imaginal in life. We see through art into the mundus imaginalis. Art is the mirror that reflects the power of an image. I wanted to pay homage to this great artist this morning, because his work impacted my life in subtle ways.
If you do not know Parks’ work, you should because not only was he one of the great Life Magazine photographers of the 20th century (among his many achievements), but he also had a particular eye that captured images of class and race that most of America had never seen before. See, Parks was African-American and his eye captured on film what had never been captured: the humanity of a race of people that American culture had dehumanized with its stereotypes and caricatures.
Yes, Parks broke color barriers in America when he became the first African-American photographer working for a major news organization. Yes, he broke them again when he became the first African-American to direct a major motion picture adaptation of his autobiography, the Learning Tree. Parks created a new genre of movie of African-American-oriented films when he directed Shaft. He was a novelis, a poet and a composer. His talents seemed endless, not unlike his vision of the world.
But it was his photographs that mattered to me, pictures of a world and a people I had never imagined in the white, Connecticut suburbs of the 60’s where I grew up. The people in those photographs had a story that shone through, a story of dreams and dignity that never were presented before in American mainstream media.
Parks' photographs became the lens through which I began to imagine the African-American experience in America, an experience of poverty and discrimination, to be sure. My family subscribed to Life Magazine in the 60’s and those pictures became yet another mirror in which I viewed the world. Parks didn’t shy away fro the truth of a situation, the desperation of a people in a country of promise. But they also gave me an experience of dreams and aspirations that we not unlike my own.
In order to understand differences among people, one has to begin by understanding the similarities. We always seem to begin relationships by looking at what is the same, attempting to find safety in the sameness of the other. Immature in this experience, we assume that this makes our experiences alike. And yet, those photographs by Parks also helped the child-me understand the differences. Recognizing the differences between myself and a African-American child in an inner city allowed me to not claim anything of the African-American experience in America as being "just like my own". I didn't have to confiscate or appropriate the culture as my own in order to sense its emotion. This ultimately became the way I approached cross-cultural ideas: see the sameness but don't appropriate it. Experience the differences as a way of understanding its depth. That was a complex set of emotions for a 7 year old to learn. It was even a more complex set of ideas for a 50-something year old cultural mythologist to develop. Parks' art gave me a foundation for these ideas.
The power of a work of art is the power to move us through its own complex and sometimes conflicted weavings of emotion and context, time and place. Art, as E.M. Foster tells us, is something that has its own internal harmony, its own ability to stand on its own and reflect to us the delusions and promises of culture. True art punches a hole into the world of mundus imaginalis, making us painfully aware of what we are seeing through. It reveals the truth not only of the sensate world of perception, but the more subtle world of the imaginal
Parks always punched a hole into my imagination allowing me to dream of other places and other kinds of people. He was well aware of the power of art to change the lenses of a culture and I can’t help but wonder how much Parks photographs provided the imaginal key for the civil rights movements of America in the 60’s. There was no limit physically or imaginally to his work. As the obituary in the WashingtonPost, “Life' Photographer And 'Shaft' Director Broke Color Barriers” quotes:
Freedom, Parks said, was the theme of all of his work: "Not allowing anyone to
set boundaries, cutting loose the imagination and then making the new horizons."
posted by Maggie @ 8:44 AM permission to reprint the essays of Maggie Macary has been granted mythopoetry.com by the executor of the estate of Maggie Macary. mythopoetry.com wishes to thank Doug Macary& Martin Macary for their generousity in making her essays available to you.