Tuesday, October 28, 2008

SYMBOLS of popular culture

That we recognize symbols in culture is not amazing, we seem to be hard wired to recognize symbols and symbolism. Whether we understand the symbolism or not is not the point. When we look at culture it is filled with images that tell us what we are supposed to connote some message from the work. In the movie BLACK RAIN with Michael Douglas a plane leaves the United States airspace of red sun, white sky and blue ocean (The US Flag: Red White and Blue) to land in Japan, with a largely white sky and blazing Red rising sun (The Japanese flag of the Rising Sun.) It is not necessarily important but it adds to the layers of symbolic information, and the viewer may or may not understand it more than just feeling something, but, it is there.

Some symbolism retains power and value throughout human experience. The story of Saint George killing the Dragon is powerful, but a mythic story that arose from a person who did something very much the same in terms of choices made. Saint George comes from a historical figure who chose not to convert to a different religious faith in the face of a demand from an Emperor. He was executed as a result. The mythic story follows a Knight who slays a dragon, but the mythic root is that in our lives we are able to make heroic decisions, and the dragon, that beast of conformity and hate can be slain. The Christian metal band Demon Hunter has an image of a slain Demon skull as the symbol of their band. They do not linger over lyrics of killing demons, they speak about choices and morality, they slay demons with words. The symbolism here is unchanged, and there are many many other instances I could show for the same sort of usage.

Death itself is symbolized by a Skull. In the past the use of a skull in imagery meant very clearly that death was near, that a portent of danger was evident, and that one should be careful, exhibit fear, or wariness. But lately in many forms of culture, you see the skull being used not as an omen of horror, or danger, but of empowerment over such a thing. Whereas Skeletor from He-Man and Darth Vader of Star Wars were given skull like faces, you can see skate boarders wearing clothing with skulls on it to show they are brave in the face of danger. You can see it in the Christian metal band AS I LAY DYING, who uses the skull to symbolize that Death is a doorway to a different existence, and that being slave to the flesh rather than the spirit is death itself. This usage of imagery can cause confusion, as clearly when symbols change meaning people from before and after do not connate the same thing from the symbol. When I see a pirate flag and the Skull and Cross bones I do not necessarily think I am about to die, or be in danger, but I certainly don’t see Pirates of the Caribbean as being about men who are evil and wishing to plunder.

Finally some images we create might have no greater meaning (although Abbey Road does have a number of symbolic images and meanings, which I might discuss in future articles... although I am no expert regarding it) but enter into culture due to the widespread popularity, notoriety, and importance. The Beatles were very much a famous, powerful, important band, and everything they did had a place in culture, that was revered and examined. Whether they were meaning to do so was really not the point. They were considered at the edge of culture and you can see from album covers and personal statements and music lyrics from the band and members, they were a cultural movement. The album Abbey Road was very important, lovely to listen to, and musically valuable. But the impact it had can be seen in the numerous parodies of it. Many dozens of bands, individual artists and popular culture mediums utilized the familiarity and fame of the image, to portray themselves in the same important light. The image enclosed shows just the tip of the iceberg of people imitating the image.

Symbolic information exists whether we understand it or not, but is the symbol used a constant, or has the culture changed it, what band, author or game is so powerful and important to become part of the imagery of popular culture?


kurt wilcken said...

Your first two examples, the story of the dragon-slayer and the skull as a symbol of death, are cultural symbols that pop culture has happily appropriated, as it devoureth all things. The Abbey Road cover and it's homages is an example of pop culture devouring its own.

Come to think of it, the the eating metaphor may be appropriate. Some cultures that practice cannibalism do so that the tribe may acquire some of the qualities of the person they devour; the victim's strength, for example, or his courage.

In a similar way, when a cover of CAPTAIN ATOM references Michaelangelo's Pieta, or John Byrne's SHE-HULK apes the cover of ACTION #1, the creator is counting on the viewer's recognition of the original to prompt an association of ideas, and for some of the power of the original to transfer over to the homage.

Alan Coil said...

Test post.