There is this notion that artists work without a sense of shame, both in their art and in their life. Perhaps this is true, and this, more or less, with each individual artist. To be brazen and bold, to speak the truth, or to show things that many people would rather not see, but perhaps should . . . if this is what it means to make art without a sense of shame, then I would argue that to live life or make art with an eye to decorum, tradition, and convention speaks of certain cowardice. The artist should never be afraid to call a spade a spade and announce that the Emperor has no clothes. In this world where we are continually pressured to toe the line and conform, the artist becomes both trickster and hero, breaking the status quo and into a new realm of freedom. I am reminded of Hermes the trickster god of Greek Mythology and his slaying of Argus Panoptes, the giant with a hundred eyes. “Panoptes” means “all seeing,” and Argus always saw, everything. When some eyes would sleep, there would always be others awake. Lewis Hyde tells us that in this myth, Argus symbolizes shame, his multitude of eyes, always open, are the eyes of the community, forever prying into everyone’s business, waiting to catch us in acts of shame. The shame Argus was tasked to discover was Zeus’ infidelity with Io. Hermes plays his lyre and sings stories until one by one each of Argus’ eyes close in sleep. Hermes then beheads Argus. Metaphorically, Hermes uses art to slay shame.
How does shame function in our society? What purpose does it serve? At it’s best shame functions as a check against the temptation to perform unethical acts. At its worst it functions as a form of censorship and a denial of liberties. They are two sides of the same coin. Ethics and morality differ greatly between different societies, within a single society, and among individuals. There is hardly a consensus, and even within one person, the dividing lines between what is good and what is bad are not exactly well defined. There is no black and white, as such, only zones of ambiguity, shades of gray, and contradiction among shifting sands. Ethics are not static, but are in constant flux. What may be wrong at one time may be what is right at another. There are times when it is necessary for the individual, either for one’s self or for the perceived greater good, to break with moral and ethical hypocrisy, and this is one of the tasks artists perform. It isn’t always easy, when we are socialized to behave a certain way . . . shame has a deeper grip on our subconscious than we would like to at first acknowledge. When speaking against a collective who insist that the world is flat, you are at first perceived as being crazy. Society must protect itself; its paranoid fear that when it breaks down, how helpless we are as individuals in savage nature. As individuals, too, we are not completely liberated. Even the most free of people will have a secret shame, a shame which they can only hint at. But revolution, be it personal or societal, must be given its due, and truth will out when the right time comes. The great thinkers and artists of our world will shine the light reason on those dark forbidden corners and banish shame from back to where it belongs.
Hermes the trickster also has parallels to the artist in that both are notorious thieves. Hermes steals 50 head of cattle from Apollo and through a series of clever subterfuges, attempts to cover his tracks. In the case of artists, inspiration sometimes does come out of thin air, but more often than not, it also comes from other terrestrial and cultural sources. You can read more about the artist theft in the next blog entry, The Art of Stealing.