When I was reading The Creative Habit I came across an idea called spine. In short, it is an overarching theme. It might not be readily apparent, but it should be there. It’s what holds everything together. Twyla Tharp mentions her use of the Bacchus story in her dance “Surfer at the River Styx.” It’s not immediately obvious but the themes of hubris, fall, and rebirth make up the spine of the dance.

We tell the same stories

Deep in our mythos — the set of stories embedded in our cultural subconscious — there are epic stories that keep getting re-told and remade. The film “O Brother Where Art Thou” is a modernization of The Odyssey. Countless stories make references to the legend of the Holy Grail. You may already be familiar with Joseph Campbell’s concept of monomyth that “sees all mythic narratives as variations of a single great story.” Star Wars is probably the best modern example of “The Hero’s Journey,” an important part of Campbell’s monomyth.

My story then

But all this talk about spine and mythos and recurring themes has me wondering what my own themes are in my art. Last summer I uncovered a lot of leftover adolescent anger and resentment in my own personal history. While that exploration was necessary in understanding myself. Putting a finger on, naming, and revealing the themes of my past and how that has impacted my present to some degree doesn’t necessarily indicate where I’m going. Well, I suppose I would continue in the same direction without realizing it, but now I have a choice of changing direction, of charting a new course. Anger, resentment, and grudges aren’t things I’m interested in now, unless it is as a lesson and a warning to others.

So I suppose my question becomes:

“what themes do I want to explore in my art now, at this point in time and space?”

We’ve traded nihilism for PBR’s

In a lot of art from the past 100 years or so there is an overarching theme of despair. Of course, the 20th century brought war on an unprecedented scale, with increasing brutality on a global level.

In this postmodern society we live in now, there seems to be this attitude of hedonism, minus the New-Age mysticism of the 60s. Postmodernism has manifested itself in the popular culture as hipsterism:

Life sucks, and then you die. But before that happens, let’s just get drunk on Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and make fun of other people’s faux pas with our own ironic faux pas.
Pop culture gives us an escape from despair, distracting us from it, so it becomes a sort of savior. This is why the arts have replaced religious gravitas with tongue-in-cheek paintings of cartoon characters. I suppose it is still nihilism, but it is a cheery nihilism, if you will.

But that’s not my story

But that’s not my story. Those aren’t my themes. I mean, I get it. I watch comedies like FuturamaArrested DevelopmentHow I Met Your Mother and all that. I get the hipster scene to some degree. But I’ve put that teenage anger and resentment behind me (for the most part, anyway), and despair is not a part of my life. I have faith in something bigger than me.

My themes: quiet, fog, timelessness

I think for a while now I have been gravitating toward new themes, motifs, rather, that I’ve mentioned here a few times: quietfog, and timelessness. I’m moving beyond my own personal themes to something more universal. They’re metaphors for the quiet we all seek, especially with how noisy, busy, and cluttered our world has become.

Quiet is something that has been forced on me due to the fact that I’m deaf. (Though when my hearing aids are off, I hear the eternal ringing of tinnitus.) But as I’ve gotten older it is something I seek out. (Especially as a parent!)

Fog seems to be an appropriate metaphor for quiet. It doesn’t actually dampen sounds, but it does make you feel quiet. Maybe it’s the fact that you have to slow down and pay better attention when you’re driving in fog? Everything is different, mysterious, and new.

It’s a start

It’s not much of a narrative, but it is a theme. It’s a start. It’s the beginning of a spine.

What’s your spine?

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Header Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc