Today I randomly found an old essay that I wrote over five years ago. I was searching for “101” in my emails, looking for directions for this place off of highway 101. Instead I found this essay from my English 101 class. It’s about this idea called the “Symbolic Complex.” If I remember correctly, the symbolic complex is the preconceived notions and the packaging of an experience that destroy our ability to truly experience the thing we are trying to experience.
It’s interesting going back and reading old essays and journal entries. From this essay I could see that even when I was in college I had already started to develop my personal writing style, sort of an easy going self deprecating humor style that still persists today. And it’s interesting to note that this assignment sort of started my love for museums. It sort of explains too, why I like to go out and just do stuff, rather than planning things out in detail beforehand.
Anyways, if you are truly bored, you can read Walker Percy’s The Loss of the Creature, which was the paper that my essay is a response to. Here’s a link to it. In my opinion it’s pretty dry and boring and academic, so you can go ahead and just skip to the essay below. I promise it’s not that boring and academic…
Lack of Experience
I am not a connoisseur of art. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever voluntarily entered an art museum, except maybe once or twice to use the bathroom. So I did not know what to expect from the Palace of the Legion of Honor, supposedly one of the best art galleries on the west coast. Therefore I was mostly free from the “symbolic complex” that Percy talks about. Browsing the web site informed me about the vast collections on display at the museum, as well as some of the history of the museum. I heard from several more cultured friends that the Legion of Honor was the best museum to visit in the Bay Area, because of its exquisite collection of artwork. Before my tour of the gallery, I believed that this little bit of information and hype was Percy’s symbolic complex, and that it was necessary, inevitable, but most importantly, harmless. Since we are in control, I thought, the symbolic complex holds no power. However, after my tour I now believe that the symbolic complex and the “packaging” completely destroy our experience by taking control away from us.
The symbolic complex is necessary and inevitable. Nobody would visit the Mediocre Canyon—we visit the Grand Canyon, because we believe it is just that—Grand. Because we can visit thousands of attractions, the place we ultimately visit is the place that is hyped the most—so the place we visit is actually the one with the largest symbolic complex. We need to believe that our experience will be magical, otherwise it’s not worth our money and time. So we spend our time researching various places, and ultimately picking the one we go to. I did not see how this was harmful—we are still creating our own experience.
I decided to create my experience at the Legion of Honor. I arrived at the Legion of Honor around ten in the morning and decided to do a self guided tour of the artwork. I proceeded down the east wing of the museum, exploring gallery after gallery of artwork. Apparently each gallery is comprised of artwork from different countries and different periods, but to me everything looked similar. Finally, in the last room of the wing, after viewing what seemed like endless portraits of various nobodies, I found a piece of artwork that caught my attention. Compared to all of the realistically bland portraits, this was lively and colorful, and absolutely imaginative. It was also incredibly mysterious, because I had no idea what I was looking at.
I glanced at the small sign posted next to the piece, and discovered that it was a work by Pablo Picasso. It was “Still Life with Skull, Leeks, and Picture.” Immediately, the mystery was destroyed— now I knew what I was looking at. In addition, the wonder and fascination with the picture was gone. This is an excellent example of how the “symbolic complex” destroys our experience. The sign creates an image of the object in the viewers mind—In this case, the name of the picture brings to mind leeks, skull, and a picture. If I had viewed the sign first, there would have been no moment of mystery. Instead of making my own discovery, I would be affirming the curator’s findings. There would be nothing to do but affirm, “Yes I see a skull, leeks, and picture. It’s a typical Picasso.” There would be no way to wrestle control of the experience away from the sign. If I had viewed the sign first, there could have been no recovery short of banging my head on the gallery wall until the symbolic complex faded from memory. But then dizziness and headaches would have interfered with the experience.
Percy also argues that the packaging of an experience typically destroys the experience. He cites the example of the “specimen” of dogfish on the students table. The Legion of Honor contains similar examples in its period rooms. There is a Louis XV room, a 17th century French room, and a Dutch Baroque room. The curators worked hard to make these rooms feel like a typical room from the era. The walls and ceilings were ornately paneled and the rooms were filled with furniture, silverware and plates from the era to provide the viewer with the experience of living in the past. It is readily apparent, however, that our experience is limited—the seats have ropes across them, the beautiful plates and silverware are protected behind plexi-glass, and there are signs everywhere that say, “Please don’t touch the furniture”. As Percy states, this is not our experience, but rather the curators’. To recover our experience, we would have to completely ignore the rules of the museum, so that we can experience the furniture and silverware as they were meant to be enjoyed—By making the museum our own. We can sit on the fancy chairs, put our feet up on the ornate tables, and pour the beer we snuck in into the fancy chalices and enjoy the experience of drinking cheap beer from priceless Baroque glassware. Then we would truly be experiencing the life of the period. In this way we would steal the experience away from the curator and make it our own—Of course then our next magical experience would be jail.
Although I initially disagreed with Percy, I am now thoroughly convinced that he was correct. The symbolic complex and packaging both destroy our experience by taking control of the experience away from us and putting it in the hands of curators or tour guides, or even signs. The symbolic complex and packaging was largely unavoidable in my experience, which leads me to wonder if I’ll ever be able to create my own journey of discovery.