Thursday, September 14, 2006

means vs. expression

Occasionally, I hear a single comment, a single sentence that seems to explain mindsets, or philosophy, or disconnects, or misunderstandings that have previously had me completely stumped. Often, these aha statements come in the form of a criticism or complaint that gives just enough information to shed light on the fact that the whole of the purpose in what is being complained about is lost on the complainer. It happens often enough that I try to name the mindset. I like the term “functional form fallacy” because it sounds so modern and confusing with the alliteration and allusion to opposites. “Hey that new yard stick we bought isn’t long enough, it won’t even hold a gallon.” Ok, I made that up, but that is the form fallacy I encounter frequently. Something is being evaluated based on a function that it is not intended for or designed to do.
This is a mindset that I am ultra familiar with. In terms of art, we normally cast our bias in our evaluation of a work based on our purpose for art regardless of the purpose of the artist. I might be angry because a painting caused me to feel a different way than I like art to make me feel, and therefore deem it unsuccessful or even worthless. The artist, however, may have intended for me to feel exactly how it made me feel. He then, feels very successful.
Beyond cultural biases and personal preferences, I am amazed at how ubiquitous this blind spot is and into what areas we insert our personal desires and misunderstandings. Art is intended and suited for a much bigger purpose than being observed or heard and deemed beautiful. It teaches us. It teaches us a variety of things. It gives us a look at our selves. It inspires us. It demonstrates how to express what is inside us. But all too often we only allow it to show us a fuzzy, artificial painting of a flower, it inspires us to allow ourselves to look at more paintings of flowers, it teaches us how to paint a fuzzy picture of a flower. We fail to realize that it is art not because it was a flower, or it was painted in a certain way; but that it represents an expression of a feeling of the artist, it represents the artist’s perception and emotion upon viewing a flower. Were we to realize this, our inspiration would be to allow ourselves to feel about something the way the artist felt about the flower, to respond to the feeling in some way as the artist did by painting, and accept the freedom to share that emotion with other people. Art should teach and inspire us to feel and express, not to imitate and copy someone else’s expression. The painting of the flower is not the art at all, it is the act of painting the flower, and the experiencing of it, that is art. I think it is demeaning to art, and the artist, to copy the object rather than the expression - the means rather than the motivation. But it is our way to settle for less than we’ve been given. It is important to realize that though someone else may do something better than me, it doesn’t mean that I am doing it in the best way by copying them.

Recently I heard from a minister of music, “we have this huge psalter, a hymn book, sandwiched inside our bible. Beautiful worship - how dare we think that we can write better words, poetry and worship than can already be found there?” This represents to me a very different initial response than I have to what purposes the Psalms serve. But I think my initial response is caused by a very different approach to observing, evaluating and learning. Though it is not uncommon to actually rehearse the Lord’s Prayer corporately, few of us would hold to the conviction that Jesus’ words, “this, then, is how you should pray,” mean that what follows as example is the only legitimate words that we can use to interact with God. Oddly enough, nowhere in the Psalms is it stated, “this, then, is how you should worship.” If I were truly to hold to the idea that the Psalms contained the expression and words that were more worthy than my own heart feelings and response to God, then somehow I’d have to understand how I’m worshipping by singing about bashing babies’ heads against rocks.
Also, if I can have a bigger understanding of the purposes of the psalmist’s words being included in the bible, then I might realize that not only can I learn to express, as he did, my own love, awe, wonder, gripes, pains, laments, but I can also learn what responses, he had that weren’t appropriate by noting how God responded to him. The narrative about David’s life, and activities and personality when read with the psalms, give a complete story of a lifestyle of interaction, worship and correction with God. It teaches us much more than content for a procedure that takes place at an intentional gathering during a short specific time.

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