I was waiting for the elevator the other day at the office and I noticed a spot on the wall that looked like South America. I realized how quintessentially human it is to take a random configuration and impose meaning.
If I'd never seen a globe, I would have called the spot something else entirely. Or not even noticed it.
Human consciousness, to me, is is best described as a quest for pattern. We are all, at one level or another, searching for ways to categorize, organize and synthesize what we experience into understandable order. (I find this a marvelous alternative to housework.)
So much goes into this: our personality, our life experiences, our culture, maybe even past lives. James Hillman ( The Soul's Code ) has plenty to say about how much our innate personality influences how we experience life. Yet no matter which comes first, nature or nurture, both play a huge role in shaping not just the pattern we create, but how we search for it.
Some make the climb and tell the others how beautiful the view is from the top. Others stand at the bottom and say the view isn't worth it. The worst suggest that the act of climbing causes rock slides and should be forbidden.
This fundamental difference is what separates wolves from sheep.
And most of us, however much we like to identify with the wolf, have been sheep before and will be again. We can't help it. In our quest for pattern, we see what we want to see. What we've learned to see, what we've been taught to see.
We like to make use of the research others have done. It saves time and effort and can be in our best interest. If we learn from our tribe to recognize the tiger in the grass, this is good. It's good to let the wise woman tell you how to distinguish the bane from the wort.
What's not good is thoughtless acceptance of dogma, doing things because that's the way they've always been done, allowing the group to stereotype for you: Blondes are dumb. Ex-husbands are jerks. Southerners are ignorant. War is patriotic. Witches are Satanists.
You get it.
It's easier to create simple patterns, to throw out whatever information doesn't fit. To see what makes us comfortable. This is much more difficult in modern culture, where the sheer volume of data is intimidating. The purity of symbols is diluted. Shiny images are dulled by the patina of too much information. Mom and apple pie can be warped to include Joan Crawford and over-indulgence.
So, for the timid, the simpler the symbol, the better. Interpretation should be uncomplicated and clear. This is why kitsch survives. This is why TV ads use sex and the America flag to make you buy. This is why people buy paintings of Charleston marsh scenes that match the sofa.
Art is for wolves. Kitsch is for sheep.