mythology

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[For the past few years I’ve served as the “scholar in residence” for New Urban Arts’ Summer Art Inquiry program. After last year’s program, I wrote this introduction for their publication, Mythology: Art Inquiry Resource Guide 2012. The resource guide can be downloaded.]

In school I was taught to equate mythology with dead religions. This was never said directly, but the implication was clear: the religions of today had somehow supplanted the religions of the past, and we were allowed to believe that truth prevailed. In a sense this allowed us to think of mythological stories as detached from our lives, and as more a reflection of human foolishness than human ingenuity.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned of the political dimensions of Western religions – allowing me a more complex understanding of the history of belief, including a sense of the necessity and meaning that inspire mythological narratives. This knowledge allows me to return to mythology with a more robust sense of imagination and connection, and to see mythologies as the intuitive, foundational, cultural knowledge that they are.  More importantly, it allows me to understand these narratives as integrated into the lived experience of those who created them and those who retell and reinterpret them over time.

Mythology, when it serves to embody mystery, lend a sense of power in the face of injustice, or reflect our deepest fears and hopes, tells us a great deal about who we are as human beings, what we embrace and resist, and what we desire from existence. It also tells us about the historical moment in which these stories were created or in which they’re being retold. Mythology as reflection of the human impulse to create metaphor and narrative, as a means of explaining shared human experience, offers me more than it ever could when I thought of it as a lifeless artifact.

Yet mythology, as a term, has accumulated a negative connotation, too. We use the word to more often describe an inaccuracy or to write off those things we may want to believe, but which might not be entirely quantifiable. To call something a myth is to strip it of objective power, to name it untrue. The persistent rumor of alligators living in New York sewers is an urban myth; thoughts about UFOs and visitors from other worlds have recast the ancient gods. In an age of science—as we insistently cling to its illusion of objectivity—to embrace mythology is to risk being seen as frivolous or detached from the hard facts of reality. And yet, even science isn’t immune to this process. Those with vested interests in fossil fuels have ingenuously recast the data of climate change as a myth.

Through active investigation of mythology we wrestle with the very real tension that exists between our intuitive and rational ways of knowing.

Our mythologies, reflecting the things we want to believe, what we imagine to explain the inexplicable, and even the stories we tell about those matters we rightly know, reveal who we are and who we might yet become. Painstakingly objective or fancifully intuitive, our narrative truths, the beings we imagine, and the multiple ways we conceive and narrate our identities all serve to mythologize our moment in history. They all serve as methods of trying to make sense and meaning from the complex and jumbled interactions we have with the world. They even inspire us to act with greater courage, to take intellectual and creative risks, and to dare to live in more deeply meaningful ways.

The work contained in this collection reflects the thinking and making of a group of high school students who spent a summer considering mythology. Like all mythology, it builds upon the legacy of meaning and story handed down to us from those who’ve walked the planet before us. It is also insistently grounded in the cultural moment and thinking in which these students are coming to political consciousness. Perhaps most importantly, each story, every artifact contained in this book has been recast by the artist who made it. Samurai are seen in the light of 21st century urban life; Norse gods are products of both magic and digital technology; and notions of place and home are considered through an interrogation of the tension that exists between personal experience and the mythology of the American Dream.

If there’s one thing curious about this collection, it’s the artists’ reliance on myths first told by others. We are certainly the inheritors of a rich cultural history, yet I pause to wonder how different this book might be if each artist were to have crafted myths tied more intimately to their lives. I don’t name this as a criticism of the artists who participated in this project, but rather as a reflection of our shared cultural moment. We are living in a moment of cultural repetition and recycling, even as we run headlong into new technological terrain. There can be spiritual meaning in the retelling of the stories we’ve received, but our generation also faces the imperative of creating new metaphors for mapping human experience, mapping our experience. We can and we must tell new stories, intuit our own meaning and metaphor; indeed, the future demands that we create distinct meaning to pass forward. One hopes that our narratives – those we’re telling now and those we’ve yet to conceive — speak to our particularity and not simply to our ability to consume and reproduce the stories of the past. One hopes that the retelling of the stories we receive is a step toward creating new ways of relating the mysteries and knowing we encounter. Mythology is not something that we’ve only inherited from the past; in order to live richly and wisely, it is also something that we must actively create everyday.

Of course there’s myth in these hopes, too.

PCH, Providence RI, December 2012

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