You may ask what the point in using symbolism to convey a message through art really is. Those who are familiar with art history know that Symbolism is a movement that started up with the paintings of Gustave Moreau around 1860 but was deemed useless and out of date by the beginning of the First World War. It was a movement that was mainly concerned with the other worldly, and to a surprisingly high degree was linked with Catholicism. Some symbolists were interested in esoteric world views, and wanted to convey these beliefs through their art. These artists felt that the best way of conveying their view of a more spiritual realm was through the use of symbols as it was a way of pointing towards realities that you couldn't otherwise describe. Many artists were, however, not necessarily expressing very complex truths. In simple terms, this artistic genre came about as a reaction against the industrial upswing and a wide spread interest in realistic art as social commentary. The war crushed a lot of idealism and made introspective and solipsist art seem self-indulgent - the art that followed was mostly socially orientated.
Nothing in art history is, however, straightforward and subject to a strict chronological time line. When it comes to symbolism, it pops up here and there in various forms and for various reasons. In the modern era, artists often use symbols without making much of a point of it. Various forms of fantasy art are alive and well, and some of these artists of the imagination employ symbols to a very high degree. Almost anyone who is interested in investigating the deeper layers of the human psyche or spiritual visions will use symbols.
Symbols have always been around in the form of mythology, fairy tales, as well as esoteric and alchemical explorations. These depictions of the human condition and how humans relate to the other worldly have been informative and necessary for the evolution of the human psyche, and there is no reason to believe that this has come to an end. It may seem that cynicism and a fragmentation of spirituality is here to stay, but I don't believe it. Art that expresses such disillusion is not life-affirming and constructive, and is therefore in the long run an unsatisfactory way of dealing with life's deeper issues and the human condition.
While the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud paved the way for dream interpretation, his disciple Carl Gustav Jung made a great job in researching the deeper meaning of widely recurring symbols and archetypes. The Depth Psychology that he and others instigated is still inspiring a great many psychotherapists who are interested in the subconscious mind and importance of dreams and archetypes in people's lives. Mythology isn't out dated - myself and many others believe that the human consciousness is constantly creating new myths and ways of story telling that help us come to terms with our lives. While the basic themes remain the same, they are being re-created, no doubt to fit new perspectives and higher levels or orders of collective understanding. I believe that we are constantly aspiring towards higher and more comprehensive levels of understanding, and so am not strictly speaking a Jungian. I've been reared in the Transpersonal (Integral) tradition. I do believe that symbols are relevant in all of life's areas nonetheless.
So what are symbols, exactly? According to Wikipedia a symbol is "something that represents an idea, a physical entity or a process but is distinct from it. The purpose of a symbol is to communicate meaning." The way I see it, symbols have levels of meaning. There are symbols that are pretty deep and universal because of our joint collective experience of these elements of life. For instance, a snake represents the other end of evolution, i.e. very primordial or basic instincts and affects. From primordial myths and belief systems we can also see that the meaning is also attached to the universal life force and sexuality. Most people are scared of snakes so in a dream it's usually about feeling threatened by basic instincts such as sexual feelings and related issues.
The same symbols also have a shallow level of meaning which is dictated by cultural meaning and individual experience. A snake may not be threatening to someone who is a snake charmer. Someone who is a Hindu and familiar with theories about the Kundalini force would be more likely to associate the snake with religious beliefs than a Westerner would. Of course, we all know about the "one eyed snake", the male organ, which is yet another reason it tends to be connected to sexuality.
I believe that the best way to learn to understand the language of symbols is by engaging in dream interpretation (you can also study and compare myths). This is no easy task as you have to understand the parts as well as the whole, i.e., how the various elements of the dream (the symbols) relate to one another and what the context of these elements is. You need to reflect upon the associations the symbols offer as well as be able to grasp the overall feel of the dream in an intuitive way. The dream also has to relate to the dreaming person, as one has to distinguish the universal meaning of the symbols from possible individual interpretations. Intuition is truly paramount during this process. The language of symbols is not quite like an ordinary language because it relies so heavily on intuition. You also have to keep in mind, that all the symbols in your dreams associate with aspects of yourself. For instance; familiar people you see in your dreams represent qualities in yourself, and buildings usually (unless you're a gypsy traveller, one would assume) symbolize the different levels of the psyche.
People often say they dreamt about something they saw on TV before going to bed, and this becomes their reason for dismissing the existence of any deeper significance attached to the dream. There's a fallacy in this thinking because you don't dream about something because you saw it on TV, but because what you saw on TV reminded your psyche of something significant that it consequently wanted to resolve through your dream. Nothing in your dream world is haphazard. The key to successful dream interpretation is that you take into account every single aspect of the dream with the understanding that it all makes sense in some deep and significant way. We also tend to remember dreams that really are significant to us, while less important dreams are forgotten. If you're grabbed by a dream, it means it has something to say to you that you may not have realized during waking consciousness. I have personally not found anything terribly revelatory within my own dreams, but that's because I'm very interested in my inner life while I'm awake and so nothing comes as a surprise. I find that dreams can clarify some issues, though. There is nothing quite like having had a vivid and deeply emotional dream that really tantalizes your imagination points to great potential,and promotes contemplation about your life situation...
In order to get your imagination going, you might like to consult a book on dream interpretation. Books cannot explain everything for you and it's very important that you choose your book well! A good Jungian style book (E.g. The New Dream Dictionary by Toni Crisp) can give you ideas and impulses, and thus aid the process of understanding the way your psyche functions and what it's communicating to you.
I'm quite a literal person, and I like to communicate in a precise way. While pictures say more than a thousand words, I also like for them to be subject to a rather literal interpretation. I don't see a contradiction in terms here, nor do I have any problem with the fact that some people will prefer to take in my images without the involvement of intellectual analysis. Others will be interested in a semantic interpretation. My experience is that both work just as well, and what really matters in the end is what resonates with people, i.e., what people feel attracted to, and it really doesn't matter whether they are aware of the reasons for this feeling. I expect that people recognize the meaning of the symbols I use either intuitively or directly, and that they strike a cord in the attentive audience because of their universal appeal.
Artistically speaking, I started out by learning the logical language of symbols, and expressing my own inner development and the formation of a world view through symbolic art. I was intensely interested in esoteric view points while I was learning about the basic nature of reality. It was a rewarding time in my life, and I got much positive response from people from all walks of life. But things changed and I started to feel that making art about the tension between the spiritual and mundane was limited. In short, I felt I had little more to say. My interests have flipped so that at least for the time being, I'm more engaged in social issues, and my spiritual concerns have receded into the background. There is work to be done in the realm of our day to day life, and I feel compelled to do what I can to help alter people's perception of those who are marginalized in society.
Symbols continue to be my preferred way of expression nonetheless. Through symbols I communicate a vision of life and know that it's a visual representation of something that I could also write about if I wanted to. Yet the impact is different and hopefully a more direct way of saying what I want to say. Symbols are endlessly versatile and a visual language based on symbols can be updated to suit a contemporary audience and crucial topics of the modern day.