Symbols and Representation
In a book on symbolism the author uses a very broad definition of symbol claiming that any depiction of objects in a painting stands for something outside of the work of art and therefore they all are symbols. Thus a guitar in a painting "symbolizes" a guitar, hand is a "symbol" of a human hand. This is wrong: he confuses "illusion" with "symbols". An object portrayed in a painting is an illusion of an object that exists outside of a painting but once it is successfully painted it has gained its sovereignty. Now it becomes a positive, complete being on its own : an image that in many important ways differs from its origins in the outside world. There is an ontological difference between a painted guitar and a guitar: one is an apparition, an image made of light, while the other is a material being. Symbols exist differently: they are members of the minds library of symbolic meanings.
A scull symbolizes death but the depiction of the scull shows us an illusion of a scull, not a symbol of it. One is visual the other is rational: Imago and Logos. Images are viewed while symbols are read. To apprehend the scull as a symbol of death one has to stop contemplating it as an image and engage in reading the logos of the scull, as a category of thought, not an image anymore.
The image requires of the viewer only a cursory acquaintance with the visible world to come into being. One does not have to know what a guitar looks like to recognize it in a painting as some string instrument and allow the arrangement of paints to become an image of a guitar. For the symbol to come into existence a pictogram of an object has to occur and be recognized by the viewers library of symbolic meanings. So, the crossbones and scull do not have to be depicted with any attempt at accuracy to serve as a pictogram indicating a symbol of death. Indeed the individuating elements of the image are impeding and have to be overlooked, peeled away to show more succinctly the "noun" to be read and compared with the mind's library of symbols. Vertical bar in a child's depiction of a face is a pictogram of a nose and is "read" as a symbol of the noun "nose". At that point the child is no longer a painter, but a writer, hieroglyphic writer.
Kandinsky, Miro and at times Klee were writers of new kind of pictograms; playful pictograms without clues, fake cryptograms where wish to communicate has been replaced by an illusory meaningfulness. An object in a painting becomes unique and separate from its outside-world origin. Not so with pictograms; they are very closely dependent on resembling all other instances representing the same meaning, like hieroglyphs or letters.
Because symbols stand for ideas they need not be individuated, but sometimes they are, as in a Vanitas still-lifes of XVII century. A scull in such a still- life is painted to the utmost of realistic depiction of a scull, and at the same time it is a symbol of Death. Confronted with such still-life the powerful image of corruption and demise of life speaks to us directly and additionally we can ,and do read the symbolic words of the Christian warning :Vanitas! The scull in such still- life is both a strongly appearing image and a potent symbol. But then there are images-symbols that however beautifully executed as images reveal their symbolic meaning only to some and to increasingly fewer viewers. The dog at the feet of the couple in "Betrothal of Arnolfini" means fidelity and at the time it was painted it was clear to everyone. Now of course the understanding of it shrunk considerably. Images are perduring whilst symbols erode into obscurity.
Symbolic language enjoys considerable popularity among art critics who love to discover symbols everywhere. That means more than reading the handful of symbols placed by the artists but going on their own Symbol Safari and discovering new ones, placed in artworks by the "subconsciousness". Yet language of symbols is not a rich, dynamic, expressive, mentally rewarding form of communication. It is static, stale, reminiscent of what first attempts at any language could have been. The message in most cases is like a few one-word placards propped against each other. Not a very good tool for conveying anything of complexity, subtlety or uniqness. Yet, symbolic interpretations of art-works are generating longest texts full of exaggerated constructs and conjurers tricks of ideological fancy wholly unwarranted by the simple image that served as a bottom stool for the ridiculous overreaching into the stratosphere of cheap ideas. Since the art critics and art historians naturally tend toward the world of ideas rather than close contemplation they look with impatient distraction at the language of representation and dismiss it as narrowly literal. Oh, Rembrandt -shame on you for painting all those self-portraits without a nail to hang a symbol on!
In contrast language of representation with its directness, immediacy and irreducible complexity feeds and rewards the viewer in a way that can never be fully exhausted, cannot be dipped-out to its bottom. Yet, because images exist on the outside of discrete language, they dont generate much text under the fingers of art commentators. What is so importantly, manifestly there remains uncanny, in plain view but appealing to viewers intimate acquaintance with directly experienced reality rather than covering the resplendent nakedness of images with rancid rags of ideas.