Wendy Angel


Artist as Hero

Once, I made a diagram illustrating Emanuel Kant's, "transcendental unity of apperception," described in his Critique of Pure Reason. A very dry and smart professor of philosophy acknowledged that it was a nice drawing, and he added a warning, "Be careful of making diagrams." In other words, it may be nice and sometimes useful to draw a clear picture of a concept or thing, but in doing so we run the risk of getting stuck on a singular image or icon, and our ability to perceive beyond it may be stunted.

The premise I question is that of assuming or endorsing any fixed format for defining or describing any real character, idea, or thing. Artist as hero is tied to myths of heroes, and like Barthe’s myth of science, these are tied to the grander or deeper myth of simplicity. It is the cultural addiction to simple answers and magical ease that concerns me. In contrast I am interested in perpetuating ideas of complexity and uncertainty [4] in relation to knowledge structures. I consider myths and symbols relevant and interesting diagrams pertaining to cultural information. However, I am wary of a displacement of diagrams that elevates them to inflexible doctrine.

Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey is an example of ideas becoming dogmas by turning theory or story into a set diagram that is believed to be a realistic illustration of the Truth. The problem is not in the making of diagrams, it is in the tendency for people to remove diagrams from their usefulness as tools that assist comprehension and communication and elevate them to the level of fixed and exclusive revelations.

The gospel of Joseph Campbell may be useful and interesting to consider. But, it may be even more interesting and useful, at this point, to consider the effect of this doctrine on contemporary culture. First we need to recognize the effectiveness of sophistry. A sophistic argument is an old Greek reference to ideas we find in post-modern theory. Let us acknowledge that the elegance and authority of an argument or thesis is, like any work of art or technology, a human construction. And, let us recognize that certain contemporary beliefs endorse the sophistry that there is in fact no fact beyond the argument itself. In this case the elegance and authority of the argument or thesis determines its actual truth quotient. This being said, let us insert the ideas of complexity and uncertainty as potentially necessary elements of emergence, evolution or growth.

It does seem the case that humans are born, go through a series of experiences and die. There is information and theory that questions even these basic assumptions, but for the moment, let us look at the human journey within this birth > growth > death structure. In this context the central life experience is growth or transformation. This is a fairly solid foundation upon which to develop a concept of "The Pattern of Human Experience." The solidity of this foundation may be an indication that the structures we build upon it are primed to become stagnant or fixed. For example:

"Joseph Campbell, in his seminal study on myth established a monomythic pattern for the comparative study of myths. Interpreting myth both psychologically and metaphysically, Campbell asserts that myths take the hero on a journey that explores not only deep into the human world but also the cosmic one.

"But the hero's journey is not just a mythic construct. It is a retelling of the paradigms of life, growth, and experience. The journey is reflected everywhere- in popular mass media and in great works of literature, art, and music, in our daily social interactions and our affairs of state. All of us undertake this journey many times through the rites of passage that define us as human and shape our daily lives."

These are terribly problematic statements. In the second paragraph, the author’s need to make myth/theory "real," functions to destroy potential informative value. It is important to remember that we perceive, read and interpret, “popular mass media,-- works of literature, art, and music, -- our daily social interactions and our affairs of state," according to a vocabulary that is housed in the observer and interpreter, not the objects and entities that are perceived and contemplated. This points to the seriously difficult human challenge of acquiring methods of expanding the always-imperfect vocabulary of one’s perception and interpretation. Recognizing the imperfection of any given thesis is at least a point of departure. And analyzing language structures is a useful methodology. The author of the above quote claims terms such as, "not just," "everywhere," and “great works of..." These dead-end terms loaded with assumed judgment, omnipresence and cultural bias are more likely to indicate a sophisticated argument than an exploration or analysis of potentially useful information.

To grasp the implications of the assumption mentioned above, we need to consider the monumental influence that Joseph Campbell's writing has had on the culture in which we are immersed. For decade’s designers of cultural artifacts have been reading Campbell and modeling their products on his description of, "The Pattern of Human Experience." The author of the paragraphs elevates Campbell’s, "comparative study of myths," to a level of describing, "a journey that explores not only deep into the human world but also the cosmic one." We see that Campbell's structure sells cultural product. We see that pumping a thesis up with popular mythologies of metaphysics and psychology enhances their popular palatability and sophisticated authority. What we don’t see well is that Campbell is describing or manufacturing a mythology about the patterns of human experience. The point being, we need to question whether the theories of Joseph Campbell enhance or damage the capacity and flexibility of our knowledge structures.

The "short list" of Campbell’s diagram of, "interwoven events of indeterminate length, stress, and duration," that define the, "fabric of the hero’s adventure," is problematic in that it assumes cultural homogeneity with every term. For example, we may interpret the Australian walkabout in terms of a Campbellian structure but it is extremely likely that rather than understanding the walkabout we are assimilating a misunderstanding of it by making it conform to our cultural vocabulary..

"Departure (from the known) The Call (and its potential denial) The First Threshold (entering the liminal arena) Initiation and Transformation (I am not who I think I am) The Road of Trials The Abyss ('Leap of Faith') The Revelation and Transformation (Rite of Passage- the Apotheosis) The Atonement and the Ultimate Boon (Knowing Eternity) The Journey Home (with a gift) The Return (the final threshold from the liminal back to the known world)."

Every single term in this list may be interpreted in and out of numerous contexts and usages. I suggest that the list only makes sense as a list, a singular diagram dependent on a particular cultural vocabulary and a specific agreed upon perspective. I suggest that all the terms and the pattern they define may be interesting as a diagram but the diagram is dangerously absurd as a basis for knowledge structure. As a sophisticated diagram it holds tremendous power to maintain a sense of rightness within a singular cultural sphere. And because of this it distances a culture, or member of the culture, from devising a sense of plurality.  It works against the flexibility and boldness necessary to think beyond the obvious by packaging human experience into a neat little scenario. And it devalues alternative definitions of heroes and journeys. So, I suggest we reconsider Campbell's theories in relation to how they function against understanding in context of complexity and uncertainty.

Beyond the structure of the hero’s journey, the character of Campbell's hero is unbearably simplistic, even boring. So, it is interesting to consider the attractiveness of villains. And it may be significant to question why classic western mythology portrays the more complex and uncertain characters, which some actors prefer to play, as villainous. I suggest that Campbell’s theories are a very real example of a cultural propaganda that is so deeply ingrained and effectively assimilated that Campbell, as well as his intelligent admirers, are unaware of the actual structure and function of the construct.

We can use the example of Artist as Hero to inform our understanding of popular mythology or dogmatic construction. The artist as hero is usually associated with the idea of artist as genius. Placing art and genius on sterile white pedestals and removing the artist and her work from the real, human, complex and uncertain environment actually kills the meaning and function of the work. It is no wonder that in Classic Western culture the artist must be dead in order to be appreciated properly because this culture is seriously alienated, limited and maybe anesthetized. Once the artist is dead the human factor may be reconstructed into a myth of heroics and genius that is appropriately remote, containable and dormant.

I suggest that we reconstruct art and artists in relation to a life rather than death orientation. It may be the case that the artist is actually a hero or genius. But we do not deserve these titles due to the Classic Western popular myths defining Hero and Genius. The heroics and genius of an artist is tied to very human labor and experience. Genius may be an ability to comprehend that others exist outside of, and different from, our personal vocabularies and perceptions. The hero’s journey may be a person who has learned not to cause pain and destruction while moving through life.

Shrouding human heroics in a Campbellesque archetypical format removes art from the context of human work and product, and removes the artist from the context of being human, hard working and imperfect.

Contemplating the mythology of Artist as Hero brought to mind this segment of bad internet fiction. But, the typically web, blatantly armature and obviously anonymous narrator does manage offer an important perspective on the false mystification of art, and the relation of this false mystification of the artist.

A Little Story

I was at a small impromptu party in Los Angeles last year and a conversation was happening between a painter and a tall blond woman who had some minor job in the industry. The woman was thrilled to meet a painter. She was asking all sorts of questions. The painter kept avoiding straight answers. It went something like this.

Finally the painter said, "You can't really describe paintings. You have to see them."

"Oh, I would love to. Where are you showing?"

"Well, I don't currently have anything showing in LA."

"Oh," said the woman in a cross between curiosity and suspicion.

A third person, apparently a friend of the painter, entered the conversation, "Show her your book." Encouraging the painter. And addressing the other, "It's good stuff. Of course, pictures aren't like the real thing."

“You have pictures?" The woman demanded enthusiastically.

So the painter hesitantly got out a binder full of slides, photos and color-xerox reproductions of the work.

The woman oo-ed and aw-ed and asked questions like, "What is it?"

The painter tried to explain that, "It is a painting…" and started rambling about life, work, and survival. The blond quickly grew cold and soon turned away in an attitude of irritation and condescension.

Later I heard the painter talking to the friend.

"See why I can't stand showing the stuff. First they act like they love it. They ask me about my work. So I cater to their curiosity. Okay maybe I hope they will like it. But, then they seem to hate me. I don't get it. Am I supposed to feel honored by their attitude or what? It's tweaked. I know I should ignore it. I just don't even want it near me. I don't need to show them my stuff. My ego does just fine without approval from zombies, not that I know that woman enough to call her that or anything, I'm sure she's very nice and all, but..."

"You know," the friend answered, "people don't want to hear that art is work. They want to believe it's some sort of magical mystery."


KZ's little story describes an encounter between a painter and a woman who is potentially a patron or at least an art enthusiast. By referring to the woman as "blond" the narrator might be sympathizing with the artist. But, the story presents the artist as insufferably common, somewhat self-absorbed and probably a bit whiney.

The wise friend is the most interesting character. She amplifies the encounter between artist and art-enthusiast, observes the dynamics of the conflict and is in a position to interpret the information of the encounter. The friend seems to be capable of appreciating the work of the painter outside of a need for magical mystery. We can imagine the conversation to go on,

Artist: I don't get it.

Friend: I remember when I first met you I was irritated to learn that artists are people who work hard to achieve a certain level of skill in their mediums. I didn't want to think about art being made that way. I too, wanted it to be something magic and mysterious.

In this case the friend is the hero due to having achieved a transformation of perception and understanding. She is a hero because she can appreciate paintings while knowing that they are a product of a friend not a mysterious stranger. But, calling the friend a hero is a transient honor. The friend, like the artist and the blond, is human not meta-human. If we knew the history of the friend we could probably cut and paste until her life to fit into a mold of an archetypical hero’s journey. Or we might observe a complex structure of events and experiences that indicates a significantly disorganized pattern. If the story were to continue, maybe the artist would become more heroic by hearing and understanding the perspective that the friend offers. And even the blond could emerge a hero by gaining a more realistic view of art and artists. In any case, all these heroes are permitted to exist as they actually exist rather than squeezing them into the tidy uniform of a Campbellian Hero.

The mythology of Artist as Hero is inevitably tied up with art as magical mystery or magical ease. And if we imagine that archetypes or meta-myths are descriptions of reality it leads us towards dogmatic mega-cultural assimilation. Because literalizing diagrams of the hero facilitates our relinquishing human differences, accountability and responsibility by indulging in a monochrome fantasy. However, if we leave the myths to function as metaphorical informational tools, they often imply that the biggest magic mystery and the weirdest hero's journey is located in an actual unknown region.


By Wendy Angel