Archetypes in the Contemporary

It is true that when you begin to look for links you find them everywhere.  When I thought about the different talks given over the MFA seminar I realised there were a number of different threads that linked back to themes I am interested in, and considering how it all fit together reinforced the idea of pattern recognition which first came up in Anthony Byrt’s presentation on the first day.

Anthony put forward that that there is a contemporary craving for myth, and pointed out that archetypes are still appearing in art and popular culture today.  I think when you start looking, you can find archetypes everywhere, and indeed many well  known archetypal characters were mentioned throughout the seminar, neatly bracketed by the Trickster in the form of the Harlequin in Anthony’s talk at the beginning (such as in the paintings of contemporary artists Ryan Mosely and Peter Linde Busk), and at the end with Bepen Bhana’s talk Boom! Boom! Deluxe in the form of Basil Brush (a fox), who, wearing his stylish new luxury brand clothing, spoke of the emptiness of these brands that are no longer symbols of the notion of quality workmanship, but are shallow billboards to a pretence at wealth and status. The idea that the Trickster is a character who reveals uncomfortable truths could be held up as one of the more worthy approaches to contemporary art… can artists themselves be seen in this trickster role?

I agree that there is a craving for myth in contemporary society, maybe as an antidote for the overwhelming confusion of increasing globalisation. In a world where technology has the ability to bring us all closer together there is also an instinctive reaction against the discomfort of being exposed to a world that is perhaps not yet used to speaking the more subtle languages of culture.  A return to familiar archetypal notions reminds us that we all have common understandings as humans, that sometimes the communication of basic ideas goes beyond language or culture.  I think archetypes have always been of interest to people as part of various forms for storytelling, but are perhaps becoming even more relevant in a world devoid of black and white, where there are no longer clear villains and heroes.

This talk resonated with me because my interest in storytelling and fairytales has lead me to an interest in archetypes and why they continue to be so appealing.  Storytelling hasn’t changed much over the centuries, we are still interested in stories that have a hero and a villain (or protagonist and antagonist) and even when these characters are built to be more complex there seems to be a need to recognise the overriding drive of a character as being good or bad, as though it is easier to process a story in terms of its tricksters, heroes, mothers, martyrs.

Anthony’s talk also got me thinking about my own practice and how I could tap into this idea of archetypes to allow some access to the audience.  One of the problematic aspects of my work is that it can be seen as being quite autobiographical as the territory I am interested in is memory and I prefer to draw people I know.  I think perhaps I could look at my work more in terms of what archetypes they might touch on that could be recognised and resonate with the viewer.


  1. Interesting post Justine. One of the other things that interests me about the trickster or jester figure right now is that it allows us to embrace shadows again, in a world where technology makes everything constantly visible. Those shadows of course, also become threatening places – hence our fear of “invisible” terrorists. But I think you’re right – finding some more “universal” resonances in your work, in the form of archetypes, could definitely deal with the autobiographical issue.

    1. I like the idea of embracing shadows, yes it can mean a dark or threatening side of things, but to flip it around it could also refer to the mysterious… of course people have a tendency to be scared of things they don’t know.

      Thanks for your feedback, The trick in trying to tap into archetypes I think is going to be a fine balance between just enough of a hint of it, but not so much that it becomes cliche. I think Ryan Mosely is particularly good at hitting just the right note in that respect.

      1. I cannot help myself but link the archetype with narrative because archetypes have something to say to us. I liken the storyteller to the trickster archetype that Anthony has described. The storyteller is able to wrap experiences into such a package that it is able to be assimilated into the audience’s own experiences and widen our wisdom. With the decline of the storyteller, are we largely loosing this ability to reflect upon our selves and our society? Walter Benjamin is his essay “The Storyteller”, talks about the fall of the storyteller being due to a lack of shared experiences. Because of the fast paced life we lead, we don’t have time to reflect upon our experiences. Therefore it seems a contradiction that there is a rise in the need fro myth making and archetypes. Or is this rise a recognition of our hungry need for the witty, wise wisdom of the storyteller/ trickster to imbue a real richness and joy to our lives?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Lea-Anne. I think there is definitely a link between archetypes and narrative, because archetypes rely so heavily on us having an understanding and recognition of them (which comes through storytelling).

    Is there a decline in the storyteller? Or are we just telling stories in different ways?

    I don’t know that there is a rise in the need for myth making, rather I think we have always placed importance on this kind of storytelling, and the sense of there being a contemporary craving for archetypes is recognition of the fact that we don’t make enough time for those stories. What do you think?

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