Dragons: Eastern, Western and in between
Summer 2002 (images are links)


At that branching point where East and West ideationally diverge, several things are revealed about the nature of their differences in contemporary culture. As if they were our planets parents, the East and West tell us a lot about who we are by the character of how they vary. And though the human family tree has far more limbs than these two, it is useful to examine these two branches in more detail. Specificly, how could the fine arts be understood more differently than they are in the East and West?

Beginning about 6500 years ago, social structures across the Euro-Asian continents began to evolve toward a patrifocal orientation. Careening out of Southern Russia, wave upon wave of Kurgan peoples, commonly called the Indo-Europeans, broke upon indigenous populations, changing them, and forcing change upon the contiguous peoples.

There is a visual / mythic record of this social transition. Indigenous peoples on six continents, people hypothesized to have been more and less matrilineally organized until the arrival of the men on horses, believed in the Great Serpent and a host of additional creatures associated with the Goddess. When the warriors on horses arrived, serpent worhippers had their gods and goddesses demonized by the winners, the makers of history, the creators of surviving myths. Across the Europe and Asia, the serpent made a transition into the dragon.

Sometimes its not possible to determine cause, or even come up with a reasonable explanation. Sometimes all we can do is note that a thing occurred and what the effects were.

Somehow, in the West, the serpent and most of what the serpent represented, was made the enemy, and the demonized serpent - the dragon - represented what was to be despised and destroyed. Focus was on the destruction of the beast and what the beast represented. Art reflected this cultural obsession. And in the West, art often became about the forces that were the barrier between life in the present, and the sacred that is somewhere else. Over the last 100 years, Western art has further diverged to the point where the sacred seems almost irrelevant as the artist focuses on his or her internal state and how that state is represented. And so now, in the 20 & 21st centuries, what specificly is represented is the barrier itself, as if the sacred does not exist.

Between East and West, in India, a different path unfolded. Indian Nagas, or dragons, are members of the pantheon of deities battling in the mythic realm. The Nagas are not the good guys, though they are not exactly evil. Still, as the demonized deities of the pre-Indo Europeans, the Dravidians, they stayed gods, just removed from their positions of ultimate power.

In the East, in China, Japan, Korea and other cultures, something altogether different occurred. Here, just as in the West, patrilineal powers took control, but in the East the deities of the indigenous peoples were not detested, or dethroned, they were co-opted. The dragon of the East is often a powerful positive force, at home in all realms, representing an enormous amount of what it is to be human and to be capable of experiencing the infinite. The art of the East has been about the sacred and its presence in everyday life. Cultural focus was not on the barriers between the present and sacred, maybe because the religions of the peoples with the old beliefs were not destroyed but respected. And so in art, focus was not on representing features of misery, but on the presence of the infinite and how in the present the infinite can be inferred.

Just as the a tree is stronger, less likely to fall, if its branches are weighted evenly as they spread around its trunk. Our awareness of diversity and our ability to experience the aesthetic of seeming opposite points of view creates an opportunity to know not only the trunk that we all diverged from, but the roots that sustain us without our knowing

Shift: Journal of Alternatives

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Dragons: Eastern, Western and in between