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About this blog: John Barry is the creator of trAction Painting, a process/performance genre in which he applies paint to large surfaces with bicycles, roller skates, and other wheeled conveyances. With Bill Carmel and other associates, he has bro...  (More)

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Masks and the Universal Themes of Art

Uploaded: May 26, 2011

I'm about to do some traveling. Artist Bill Carmel offered to write a guest column in my absence. He plans to do follow-ups in the future, expanding on the theme of masks.

From the time that human beings first made their cave drawings, visual communication has been an integral part of culture and history. The recent exhibit of Olmec artifacts at the DeYoung Museum contains objects produced by this indigenous culture in southern Mexico that predate the Maya and Aztec civilizations. When I visited the exhibit, I was particularly impressed by the number of faces found in everyday and colossal Olmec objects. There are many examples of masks in the exhibit, but one of the most sublime is the stone one shown here. Artists have always had decorative roles in civilization. Sometimes they have even driven industry (Coca-Cola) and influenced social change (the rise of trade unions.)

Their function and value was to translate tribal or cultural values and beliefs into symbols that found their way onto and into objects the people around them used in their mundane and spiritual lives. One of the ways artists across cultures and times have manifested symbols is through creating masks.

Active ceremonial use of masks by indigenous people all over the globe has been well documented and associated with rites and rituals of all descriptions. The mask transforms both the individual wearing it and the audience. By wearing the mask, the individual becomes the thing the mask conveys: a symbol of power, wealth, status; an aspect of the elements; an animal; a deity; or something else that is important to the activity, time, and place. The theme of the mask that is most often represented and morphed is the human face. Hollywood and Madison Avenue are expert at this.

One of the marvels of the human mind is that it deciphers and creates patterns. A few lines made in just the right proportions and placement convey the idea "face." Sometimes a simple pattern of lines and shapes can even convey subtle qualities of emotions and concepts beyond the identification of species and across cultural, geographic, and temporal boundaries. The ideas of universal metaphors and symbols, collective unconscious, archetypes, and the monomyth are derived from ancient spiritual texts and are constantly evolving with us.

Today masks are incorporated into many social activities. Halloween comes readily to mind. The masked ball is resurrected every now and then. Every theater we attend is infused with them; the art of makeup, a subtle form of wearing a mask, is carried into everyday life. We enter the world of masks whenever we go to the movies, see a play, experience a concert, visit a gallery or museum. It is a part of us.

Suggested further reading: "The Masks of God," by Joseph Campbell. Filmmakers George Lucas ("Star Wars"), Christopher Vogler ("Lion King"), and Stephen Spielberg ("Indiana Jones")--among many others--have acknowledged their debt to Campbell. Also see Bill Moyers' series "The Power of Myth."--Bill Carmell

John A. Barry is a writer and avocational artist. To share anything art-related, call him at 314-9528 or email

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