Monday, August 31, 2009

The Cultural Significance of Symbolic Art

Symbolic art is a universal cultural phenomenon. The symbolic significance that man assigns to external objects may reflect more about him than about objective reality. Ultimately all visual objects can have symbolic significance. Symbolic art can remind the viewer of resolutions or goals, inspire particular feelings and emotions, and harmonize attitudes and relationships. Carl Jung writes in Man and His Symbols, "The history of symbolism shows that everything can assume symbolic significance.... In fact, the whole cosmos is a potential symbol."

The meaning of symbolic imagery may depend on the age and gender of the viewer as well as the cultural context. Art can be chosen based on its symbolic significance with the intention of invoking particular feelings or emotions in the viewer. Art can also be chosen to remind the viewer of resolutions or goals.

Landscape symbolism is probably the most universal visual language in art. The sun or circle is the most basic symbol in existence. The sun is the source of warmth and life. Plato viewed the sun as symbolic of the psyche. Many religions have used the image of the sun as a symbol of spiritual illumination and wholeness. Other cultures view the sun as a symbol of the masculine principle or God Himself.

The moon is usually representative of the hidden aspects of life such as the unconscious or the dream world. The earth is often considered to be symbolic of matter and the feminine. Like the sun, water is often representative of the source of life or highest good. Similarly, mountains, rocks, trees and flowers all have symbolic meaning.

Other images replete with symbolic meaning include geometric forms and colors. More sophisticated levels of symbology are inherent in most traditional religious works and icons. Understanding artistic symbolism can deepen your experience of the visual world and greatly enhance your enjoyment of art.

Kathleen Karlsen is a professional artist, writer and design consultant residing in Bozeman, Montana. Kathleen is best known for her contemporary impressionism style and her colorful forest, landscape and flower paintings. Kathleen's original art and fine art gifts can be seen at

For an extensive article about flower symbolism see - To see a selection of Kathleen's flower paintings, please visit

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