Dilemma Tales and Art

Circus, Fire and Water

A dilemma tale is a particular kind of story with roots in a variety of tribal cultures. It sets up a situation in which the arc of the story is incomplete and the hearers are faced with a choice that leads to discussion and unraveling of the threads of the dilemma. The tale is not a puzzle to solve, with a correct answer. It offers an opportunity for the group to struggle and explore the dilemma and find meanings that are relevant for each individual in that moment. An example of the Dilemma Tale is King Rat.

Stories in general come in Greater and Lesser form. The work of Joseph Campbell and Michael Meade speak to the former kind, stories which pull us deeper into our selves and our issues, and unfold meanings rather than merely give us light entertainment.

The Dilemma Tale influences the approach I take in my current series of drawings. The intent is to create the same kind of tension that then evokes a sustained exploration and questioning of the image. Dilemma tales evolve over time and are shaped by their culture. Their survival depends on their ability to resist easy answers and to sustain their relevance. It would be presumptuous to “invent” a dilemma tale and likewise for me to invent a drawing that purports to be its equivalent.

Yet the process of creating an image, of sustaining the idea fragments and holding the tension open for deeper ideas to emerge seems to parallel exactly what happens in unraveling the threads of the dilemma tale. That is what attracted me to them in the first place. The fertility of these stories that provides the opportunity to pull out important threads of meaning is exactly that state of wonder and exploration that is the reason I make art. It has never been about lecturing, about showing off. Questions and yearnings have always been the motivation.

I believe this state of mind is both closer to the understanding of Art and to a great healing needed by our culture. We have moved so far to the mechanical, material and controlling side of culture that we are losing the ability to explore and experience wonder and ask questions for deeper reasons than to get simple answers.

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