Swastikas, Symbols and Art

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Allen Friday, Oct 30, 2006.

  1. Allen Friday

    Allen Friday Member

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    Given the recent flack generated by posting a photograph in the gallery depicting Nazi memorabilia, I thought it might be interesting to discuss the issues raised by the photograph posted below. I post this photograph specifically because it has absolutely no connection to the Nazis. And yet, that is what makes it such an interesting photograph, one which raises issues about symbols and their use in art in general and photography in particular.

    Background: Five or six years ago, I was given several hundred glass negatives which were found under a stairwell in a commercial building in the small town in which I live. They mostly are commercial portraits taken of the settlers and early residents of Cass County Iowa. I cleaned the plates and printed the best negatives. The one posted below always draws the most attention.

    I have determined that the plate was exposed sometime between 1900 and 1920. The name “Dvorak” is written in grease pencil at the base of the plate. It was taken in the Lewis Photography Studio, Atlantic, Ia. That’s it as far as “the facts.”

    Each viewer of the print has pretty much the same reaction. First, they give a quick glace at the faces of the woman and girls. They then pull the print closer and look closely at the ribbon worn by the middle girl. They then look up at me with a quizzical look. Generally, they will ask, “Were they German immigrants.?” I then remind the viewer that the photograph was taken before 1920, and their last name was Dvorak. ‘So, why is the girl wearing a ribbon with swastikas on it?”

    To me, this simple portrait demonstrates the problem inherent whenever one uses a symbol in art. The symbol must be understood the same way by the artist and the viewer. Here, the girl was wearing a swastika, a symbol of peace and prosperity. We view it, 90 years later, as a symbol of hatred and genocide. I can intellectualize why she was wearing it, but it is still difficult to get past my revulsion for the symbol.

    The meaning of symbols changes over time. The meaning of symbols varies from culture to culture. To work as a system of communication, the viewer and creator must “speak the same language.”

    So, should we use symbols in our photographs--what does it mean if the female nude is holding a fig verses a pomegranate verses a glass ball? Can we ever really understand art of the past, which used a definite systems of symbols, on anything other than an academic level?

    Should we go ahead and use past symbols in our contemporary art, realizing that only a select few will fully understand what we are saying? Should we use contemporary symbols in our art knowing that they may be misinterpreted in the future? Did modernism completely kill symbolism, so that we are only left with metaphor and allegory?

    Is the impact of the symbol greater or lesser because it is in a photograph compared to a painting, drawing or sculpture? Does this photograph prove that works are always products of their time and to be fully understood, we need to know the facts concerning their creation, or are works of art timeless?

    Just a few things to discuss. I'm not atempting to give any answers here. I thought I would just get the ball rolling. Feel freee to introduce additional issues in your discussion.

    Allen
     

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  2. ZorkiKat

    ZorkiKat Member

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    The swastika shown looks more the symbol used by Buddhists and some native Americans. The corrupted Nazi symbol runs the other way.

    Many Buddhist temples I've seen have this symbol. Its over doorways, and often on statues of the Buddha. It symbolises His heart.

    Jay
     
  3. André E.C.

    André E.C. Member

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    That`s a left Swastika widely seen in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, the HakenKreuz adopted by the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, it`s a right faced one with a clockwise rotation, therefore, a completely different symbol.

    Cheers


    André
     
  4. JBrunner

    JBrunner Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    The Swastika has been considered a symbol of goodness, the circle life, good luck, etcetera for over three thousand years. It was once the symbol of the American 45th Division. They are now known as the Thunderbirds and have a corresponding symbol. The Nazis adopted and corrupted the symbol , and many other ancient and powerful symbols, and although we are revolted by the Swastika today, we use many of the other symbols the Nazis adopted, and don't notice, as they aren't as well known.

    (the girls' swastikas run the correct way)
     
  5. Tony Egan

    Tony Egan Subscriber

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    Agree - this is the reverse "swastika". There is a public building in Sydney from the late 19c in the middle of the tourist zone which is tiled with these symbols of peace and goodwill. As a result there is a very painstaking display on the wall to explain these symbols and their history to prevent any "righteous indignation" getting out of hand from any misunderstanding. Excessive political correctness may have seen them removed but it serves to remind us that symbols prima facie are harmless. It's the value systems and beliefs they represent which we carry and cause us to respond to them.
     
  6. catem

    catem Member

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    First, I didn't see the picture/s in the gallery, and haven't read the thread discussing the issue yet, so am responding simply to above.

    I think it's a complex area. I'm not sure you can say that symbols are of themselves 'harmless', because by definition they encapsulate and represent ideas, systems, beliefs etc.

    The associations and meanings of symbols do change over time. I'm not sure you can ever go 'backwards' and ignore more recent influences/permutations; but perhaps you can.

    An interesting one is the way the cross of St George is seen now in Britain. For many it would be a simple 'innocent' expression of 'Englishness', (most usually now assocated with football).

    Can we ever, though, get away from the fact that the far right groups - National Front etc.- 'usurped' the cross of St George to signify racist politics. Confused by the fact that some (a small minority) of English football fans appear to espouse these political views.

    I personally, am not sure what to think. Friends of mine who are not in any way associated with the far right display the flag without thinking during football contests. I can't pass a house displaying the cross, though, without thinking of the associations that have come about over the past 30 years (especially).

    Maybe it IS changing, and the flag is being reclaimed. It's interestiing to see if this IS happening, and if it will be possible.

    This is not so much about photography and art, but it would become so, if the cross of St George were to be used as art/photography.
    Cate
     
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  7. goros

    goros Subscriber

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  8. FrankB

    FrankB Member

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    There are three swastika shown clearly in the image (two more are mainly obscured); two appear to be 'left', one (the right-most of the three) appears to be 'right'. I think the symbol is printed through the fabric so that its orientation depends on the side from which you are viewing.

    But I could be wrong!
     
  9. Christopher Colley

    Christopher Colley Member

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    the photographer obviously meant to promote intolerance and hate.
     
  10. ZorkiKat

    ZorkiKat Member

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    And how is the photographer supposed to do this? The photograph in this discussion was photographed in America, in what looks to be a time long before Hitler and his perverted gang became known outside of the rowdy Beer Cellars they infested and used a corrupted form of the swastika.
     
  11. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    I was shocked the first time I picked up a Rudyard Kipling book and blam! a big swastika smack in the middle of the title page. I took me a bit to recover and realize that it had nothing to do with the Nazis, and everything to do with Kipling's time in India.

    The terrible irony is when you think of the fact that the symbol is one of peace and goodness, but that it was used by a radical and violent regime. Imagine that the the Smiley face is used similarly, for the benefit of a modern radical party. Can you see an army of rabid political radicals bearing a symbol of peace and happiness on their armbands while they are crushing your face under their boots?? There must have been a bunch of alternate-history comics who used that device somewhere, I am sure.

    Nowadays the swastika looks sinister and ominous to most of us, but that is not a function of the symbol itself.
     
  12. Pinholemaster

    Pinholemaster Member

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    If you go to the Rayburn Building, one of the House of Representative's offices, you'll see swastikas in the decorative patterns in the building.

    I have a very old lamp from my family that is decorated with swastikas. Very beautiful.

    I prefer to call the Nazi's version of the swastika "reversed" because they twisted an ancient symbol of goodness to their perversion.

    The young lady in question chose this pattern, not the photographer who made the portrait, Christopher.
     
  13. livemoa

    livemoa Member

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    Like Michael and his Rudyard Kipling experiance, the first time I visited Asia and saw swastikas in what I thought where the most bizarre and inappropriate places and was rather taken aback. I quickly learnt about the history and significance of them.

    Now that I live here I don't think twice, which can be interesting when I take someone from a western background out for a temple tour ..... which I did recently, it took me a while to understand why my friend was looking at me strangely as I led her past several large swastika's and into a temple ...

    As to the St George Cross in art work, I have a very beautiful work by a New Zealand artist titled "The ballad of John and Yoko" It is two copies of the White Album cover, one with the St George Cross, the other with the Japanese rising sun. I never look at it and think of right wing politics, but I can understand people who would as both symbols can represent this.
     
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  15. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    there is a church in cambridge, massachusetts ( really north cambridge ) called st. john the evangelist. it was the church where tip o'neil's funeral service was ... anyhow, this church had these early christian crosses on the front facade. when the church was renovated in the 1990s they removed these crosses and put more "orthodox" crosses on their place.
     
  16. Bob F.

    Bob F. Member

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    The far right do not use the England flag as a symol - they have always used the Union Flag. Look at any footage of NF marches: http://www.punk77.co.uk/graphics/swastika/nfwebster.jpg http://www.bernardomahoney.com/forthcb/ootdie/media/nfm.jpg http://www.bbc.co.uk/1xtra/tx/media/nf_march_203.jpg etc. I'm not saying you will never see an England flag in such places, but it's never been the Symbol of the far right.

    The use of the Cross of St. George by England football supporters is also very recent. Until perhaps less than 10 years ago, the vast majority of flags carried by England supporters were the Union flag (showing either absurd levels of ignorance or arrogance, probably both, on their part) - usually with their local team's name written through the horizontal bar.

    It's the Union Flag that needs reclaiming - I can happily stick the England flag on my car (not that I would - far too naff!) but would not do so with the Union Flag because of those right-wing associations.

    I suspect the resurgence of the use of the Cross of St. George within England has more to do with Scottish and, to a lesser extent, Welsh devolution than any other cause - but that is an entirely different discussion :wink: ...

    Cheers, Bob.
     
  17. Claire Senft

    Claire Senft Member

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    Mr Colley that was certainly an interesting confusion you jumped to. Your insight is out of sight.
     
  18. catem

    catem Member

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    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 30, 2006
  19. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Well, while we're talking heraldry and all, when I went to Amsterdam, my biggest surprise was to see all these XXX everywhere. Of course, I thought, Amsterdam is a very open city regarding sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll.

    Then I realized that it was from the city's coat of arm, and that these were crosses, not Xs. The irony is still making me smile, though.
     
  20. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

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    One of the first times I saw the swastika was in a picture on the uniforms of a ladies field hockey team in Edmonton that was taken circa 1920. I too was confused until I researched it.

    Symbols are simply shorthand or shortcuts to represent ideas.

    Our " thumbs up" sign, in some cultures is considered to be what are middle finger up is in this culture. Churchill's "V" for victory sign with the first two fingers, hand pointed back facing out was later the peace sign, palms out.

    The Confederate flag to some is a symbol of one thing and to African Americans a symbol of oppression.

    As for the swastika, if people really wished to reclaim it as what it originally was, all they need to do is inform the public with an informational campaign, and then begin to use it again in it's original form. Within a generation or two, the Nazi bastardization of the symbol could be a faint memory or footnote in history.


    Michael
     
  21. Gerald Koch

    Gerald Koch Member

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    This is a general comment and not directed only to Mr Colley or a particular thread. It would be nice if people read an entire thread carefully before making a comment.
     
  22. Daniel_OB

    Daniel_OB Member

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    Swastika used in art today is a nice example of the artistical problem, and to solve it the best way is to trace it through the history. I just cannot remember of any example that western artists used it ever. However my knowledge is not absolute, but for sure its use was very rare. Today, to the symbol of the swastika is added one very strong meaning - nazy. I think that there is no guy when see swastika that do not remember nazy beside (if he want it) and some other meanings.
    Put it on your arm and walk along the street and just look at the faces of old people. Simple, it is what is, swastika today is a fuc*en nazy. What it was thousands years ago, ask them.
    I also think that there should not be a reason to call for trouble (today), photographs are made to enjoy in just every its detail.

    www.Leica-R.com
     
  23. Gerald Koch

    Gerald Koch Member

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    The swastika whether facing right or left is a very ancient symbol for the sun and appears in cave painting all around the world.

    I think it is important to differentiate between symbols and ideas. Symbols often change fairly rapidly with the times while ideas remain constant. Once one realizes this then symbols lose most of their power over us. It is the idea which is truly dangerous.
     
  24. Bob F.

    Bob F. Member

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    Do an image search on the BNP and NF etc and count the flags. I've been on their sites and I've read the drivel and seen the images. It is clear which is used as a symbol by these cretins. The BNP and NF both even use the Union Flag as part of their logos!

    I was on a couple of anti-racism marches as a student in the 1970's. Hardly anyone back then would have known an England flag if it had jumped up and bit them on the nose. It was never flown on Town Halls, it was not displayed inside official buildings, it was never seen at football matches, no one ever used it. The NF did not use it because if they had, they would have had to spend half their time telling people what it was!

    As for the two articles you found, frankly, The Guardian and The Independent have about as much editorial integrity as The Daily Mail, albeit coming from the opposite end of the spectrum and I note that most of both articles are really about slagging off working class popular culture (in this case, football) in a way that their exclusively metropolitan middle-class left-wing readership will approve of by associating all football supporters with the far right by association. Facts must not be allowed to get in the way of this important public service. Sheer revisionism.

    Sorry to witter on about this, but I keep reading about how the English Flag is a right-wing symbol and it simply is not true. I know the left want it to be true because they fear the stirrings of English nationalism provoked by Scottish Devolution and the fact that Scottish UK MPs vote in the UK Parliament on exclusively English and Welsh issues whereas English UK MPs have (naturally) no say in the local Scottish Parliament. But, as I said, that's another issue entirely and of no conceivable interest to anyone outside these isles....

    It's understandable when people overseas get confused between the Union Flag (the flag of Britain) and the Cross of St. George (the flag of England - I spell this out for those not aware of the difference, but still managing to stay awake) but when the British do so too, it gets a trifle irritating...

    Cheers, Bob.

    P.S. Michael: The V-for-victory sign is palm outwards, same as for Peace. The same sign, palm towards the body, means much the same as the extended middle digit in the US. Emphasis may be added by starting the hand horizontally and pivoting the lower arm at the elbow until the hand reaches the vertical, optionally ending with a flourish at the end by oscillating the hand back and forwards rapidly several times at the wrist...
     
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  25. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

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    You may be right but as I remember pictures of Churchill, it was palm towards body.


    Michael
     
  26. jd callow

    jd callow Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    And I always thought my wife was telling me to 'peace out'