The Meaning of Art

27 01 2009
Artistic rendering of a forgotten tree

Artistic rendering of a forgotten tree

A man or woman strolls quietly through an art museum.  Here, we may find an old relic, painted many years ago by an artist long since deceased.  There, might be a recent work, a modern, scarcely more than blotches of paint on a canvass.  The observer stands and views a painting.  It might be rife with hidden meaning.  For other works, the meaning might be a subtle impression, a feeling, or just the overt idea of the image itself.

She pauses at a painting of a tree.  He stops and looks over her shoulder.  They speculate about its deeper meaning.  She says that the bright spots of color indicate a feeling of happiness.  He sees the dark clouds overhead and insists that it portrays impending doom.  She notices that the tree appears to be glowing, like an angel.  He notices that the tree is dead.  Which is it?  Is it a picture of happiness and hope, or is it a picture of gloom and despair?  She says that the meaning of the painting is in the eye of the beholder, but he says that the meaning comes only from the painter.  In reply, she says that one may never know what the painter intended, so it doesn’t really matter what that was.  He answers that he knows exactly what the painter intended, because the painter was his father.

In reality, art is no different than printed text.  Whoever said that a picture is worth a thousand words hit the nail on the head.  With a simple picture, I can demonstrate a concept, a setting, a feeling, and a sense of movement.  The purpose of art is communication.  The difference between a painting and a mess, is that the painting conveys a meaning.  Like any other form of communication, art can be misunderstood.  I paint a dead tree on a rugged hillside, with clouds heavy overhead.  If you look at it and see a utility pole in a trash pile, then you have misunderstood me.  If I ask you what the weather is like, and you reply, “Russian vodka,” then you have not understood me.  This paragraph has meaning.  That picture has meaning.  Meaning can always be misunderstood, and the receiver is not the one who gives the medium its meaning.  Art can hang on a wall and communicate its message to many people, a few people, one person, or no one.  It can convey its message successfully or unsuccessfully, to a specific person or to no one in particular.  Similarly, this blog post sits on the Internet, to be seen by any number of people, to be understood or not, by no one in particular.  It is even possible that no one will read it.  Nevertheless, this writing contains inherent meaning, given to it by its writer.  The painting of a tree also contains inherent meaning, given to it by its painter.

If nothing else, the meaning is the idea of the tree, itself.  Let’s just say, though, that this picture is not a painting, but a photograph.  The observers glance at it, noting the skill of the photography, but they are not likely to look for a deeper meaning.  They just see a tree.  It may be a marvelous picture of a tree; don’t get me wrong, but they do not see beyond that.  They leave the museum, and they exit out the front entrance past a row of trees lining the sidewalk, and they scarcely notice the real trees.  They take the real ones for granted.  It’s a phenomenon so universal that no one but an autistic savant can claim not to be guilty of it.  Everyone takes real life for granted.  Occasionally, a rare, appreciative soul might study a tree and admire its beauty.  The observer might even fall in love with it and paint a picture of it.  Consider, though, whether anyone looks at a real tree like an art critic looks at a painting and searches for the meaning behind the meaning?  We live in an era where a dying breed are the people who even believe in the artist of the real tree.  Artist?  What artist?  It’s just a tree, right?  The critic leaves the museum, walks past the unnoticed trees beside the sidewalk, only to go home and worry about the meaning of life over a can of cold beer.

What is the meaning of life?  Note, that “meaning,” and “purpose,” are two very different words.  If you answer the question with some suggestion as to what people ought to do, then you might have described the purpose of life, but you have not described its meaning.  Purpose is what a thing was meant to do. The purpose of a hammer is to bang things down.  The purpose of a knife is to cut.  The purpose of a blog post is to convey meaning.  The purpose of a painting is to convey meaning.  A thing can fail to achieve its purpose.  A knife might get broken while being used to pry something open.  A blog post might be misunderstood.  If life has meaning, then two things must be true:

1) At least one purpose in life is to convey the meaning of life.

2) The meaning of life is whatever the maker of life has intended.

Our world scarcely believes in a maker anymore.  Every good thing is a product of dumb luck, or so we’re told.  We’ve taken the art and called it a mess.  We’ve said so straight to the face of the artist.  Even so, at the end of the day we find ourselves staring at the mess and looking for, needing, meaning.  The valiant soul will even say that life has meaning, but often he will say that meaning is whatever you make it.  This is to say that the meaning of the art is in the eye of the beholder.  He sees a painting of a tree on a hillside and thinks he sees a utility pole on a trash heap.  He misses the point.  He strives for happiness, but he misses out on the real meaning of life.

The real tree is a marvelous thing.  It is a work of art that dwarfs the efforts of a simple human painter.  It is a piece of wood, yet it grows.  It lives.  That would be like a house growing a new bedroom on its own.  For the house it is pure magic, but for the tree it is just an everyday occurrence.  We hardly notice when a tree grows, but if we came home to find that our house had reproduced more bedrooms we’d be astounded.  We are surrounded by a work of art in its highest form.

And we slap the artist in the face by attributing it to chance.

A rendering of a tree by a forgotten artist

A rendering of a tree by a forgotten artist

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Escape from Evil

22 01 2009

[fiction]

We were having a leg of Tim for dinner.  Bill was still working on his rat cage, eating dinner with us only when he could stand the hunger no longer.  He had this crazy ambition of raising rats in a cage he had found, with the hope of one day harvesting them for food.  We mocked him sourly for it.  For starters, rats in captivity must be fed.  Everyone knew that there was nothing to give them apart from what we, ourselves ate.  Wild rats might be another matter.  They seem to crawl into the deepest recesses and find food where no human could ever get to it.  What Bill needed to do was develop a better way to catch the wild rats for food.  Even so, there were not enough wild rats to go around.

 

Besides, Tim tasted pretty good.  I’m not sure what Bill had against it.  He seemed to think that it was all a curse or something, that we had to resort to eating each other.  I tried to explain to him that this is the way the world has always worked.  Only the strongest survive.  Bill took a long hard look into the blackness above us and said, “But what happens when we run out?”

 

“Then humanity will die,” I said.  “Nothing lasts forever.”  I figured that he was simply afraid of his own demise.  Everyone comes to that critical place at some point.  Some people laugh in the face of utter demise, and others sit around and breed rats, hoping to delay the inevitable.

 

“But, where did we come from?  How did this all start?” he asked.

 

“Bill,” I said, “I know some people think that the Fire God started it all, but, just between you and me, I think we just came into existence.  It’s like our clothes.  Where did they come from?”

 

“We found them in a box,” he replied, annoyed.

 

“Exactly,” I said, “They appeared, and we took advantage of them.”

 

He cast an angry glare toward the rock face.  He was about to speak, when Rick approached us in the darkness.  Rick is a big, shaggy man.  He had several torn shirts dangling from his shoulders, old and dirty.  Rick was a collector.  Most of us discarded our worn clothing in favor of a replacement, but he feared that one day the box would run out.  If he needed new clothing, then he wore it on top of what he already had.  Worry creased his face as he neared.  “They’ve got Jim,” he said.  We stared long and hard at each other for a moment, and then I turned away.  I pretended to examine the depth of the puddle on the ground, which we used as a source of water.  I tried to look busy with anything, so as not to have to face what I knew would be Rick’s proposition.  Bill tended to his rats with furious care.  They aggressively bit his fingers, but he hardly noticed.  Irritated, Rick repeated, “Hang it all, man!  They’ve got Jim!”

 

That’s when I turned and faced him directly.  “What do you want, Rick?” I said in low tones.  “You want to go in there and incite a war?  Is that what you want?  Do you realize that we might die trying?  We should be trying to save our own heads, as it is.  If they have Jim, then that’s just rotten, but there’s nothing I can do.”

 

Rick grabbed me by the arm.  “Oh, no you don’t!  We’re in this together!  Last week, they got Sam, and next week it could be you.  For the love of all things good, you have to help me save him.”

 

I glanced at Bill, and he shifted his gaze from me, back to his rats.  I think I saw that he was being a coward and trying to avoid this conflict, and I certainly didn’t want to be anything like him.  I approached him and said, “Come on, Bill, we’re going to get Jim.”  I grabbed a busted old chair and banged it against a wall until I had a rod of wood with which to defend myself.  Rick did the same.  We waited for Bill to arm himself, but he just looked back and forth between the two of us and clutched a rat in his hands.  “What are you going to do, sick your rat on them?” I scoffed.  With that, I turned and marched toward the enemy encampment.

 

We crossed the stone valley to the other side, where the rock precipice shot up severely on the other side.  At a place where two stone faces met, the temple to the Fire God sat, casting flickering light over the stone and the ground.  The temple was a fat steel barrel, with a stovepipe disappearing into the darkness above.  They said that the fire traveled down that pipe to consume their offerings and return the blessings of light and warmth.  The light was of doubtful use, what little of it escaped from behind the steel grate.  Mostly all it did was make the darkness seem darker.  Then I saw them, sitting there in a circle with Jim pinned to the floor.  They had marked their faces with the dark resin of the black rock that they offered to the Fire God.  Jim was screaming in horror.  All at once, without conferring with us, Rick quickened his pace and headed straight toward the group.  At first, I hesitated, but then I realized that if I didn’t join him, then all would be lost.  We ran headlong into the circle of savages and struck them as hard and fast as we could.  Stunned, they fell backward and released their captive.  Two seconds later, they were armed with sharpened scraps of steel and table legs.  We pulled Jim to his feet and urged him to run.  The enemies closed ranks and prevented our escape.  Trapped, with the searing heat of the Fire God to our backs and a tight circle of enemies before us, I sought out their weakest member.  He made eye contact with me and seemed at once to realize what I was thinking.  I aimed the sharp end of my stick at his neck and ran with reckless abandon straight at him.  Our bodies collided, and he went down.  I fell on top of him but quickly jumped back up and ran straight ahead, into the darkness.  My companions did the same.  I glanced back only too quickly to make any sense of what I saw.  The thought crossed my mind that Bill had not run with us into the attack.  We traveled in a dead run along the cliff face, so that we might not get lost.  This brought us straight to the refuse heap, a monstrous hill of trash, feces and bones, piled up against two cliff faces.  I turned right, to circumvent it, but one of their members circled around and headed me off.  The enemy held a long twisted metal scrap, sharpened to a fine edge, which he thrashed at me in cruel rage.  I felt it cut deeply across my chest, and it left me in stunned disbelief.  I knew I was cut badly, and it terrified me.  He swung again, this time only a glancing blow, and the side of the scrap bounced off of my arm.  I turned and did the only thing I could do.  I scrambled up the heap as fast as my arms and legs could take me.  I didn’t know the whereabouts of Rick or Jim, but I did know that someone was scrambling up the pile after me.  I grabbed blindly in the dark for something to throw.  I picked up something light.  I don’t know what it was, but I threw it anyway.  I continued to climb the heap, knowing that someone else was right on my heels.  My hand grabbed a heavy solid object, and I threw it over my shoulder.  From the loud curses, I knew that it had hit its mark.  Shortly, I reached the top, where two cliff faces met at a corner.  I was trapped.  I sensed that someone else mounted the pile right next to me.  I grabbed a nearby femur and beat him wildly with it.  He flailed his arms in self-defense, and wrested the bone from my grasp.  Then I realized that it was Rick.

 

“James didn’t make it,” he gasped, “Where’s Bill?”

 

All around us, I could hear people climbing up the heap.  We began grabbing anything we could get our hands on and heaving it down the hill.  In seconds, I could see their dark forms standing before me.  For a moment, I considered snatching back the long bone from Rick’s hands.  In a last ditch effort, I threw myself at the nearest foe, and felt myself taking hold of a long rod that he held before him.  Knocking him down, I took his weapon, not really sure if it was a sharp weapon or a blunt cudgel.  Without thinking, I stabbed it at the nearest foe, and it landed with a thud.  It was definitely a blunt weapon, for hitting, not stabbing.  My enemy returned the favor and hit me hard enough to make me see flashes of light.  Someone in the distance screamed in bloody agony.  Clearly, they had gotten to Bill after-all.  The one who had hit me turned to yell over his shoulder, “Don’t kill him, you fool!  You’re wasting food.  It’ll never keep.”  I tried to take advantage of the distraction, but when I straightened up to make the blow, I felt nauseated and weak.  Another of their number simply took the weapon from me, and I could not resist.  Their leader turned and looked at me with delight.  Wonderful, I thought.  I’m next week’s dinner, now.

 

That’s when it happened.  A shaft of light cut through the darkness down below.  It spread open, and cast a blanket of light before it.  We blinked dumbly before it.  It made no sense.  I couldn’t understand what it might be.  I could see the shape of a person standing before it.  He reached over to one side and the next thing I knew, the entire world was flooded with light.  We sat there blinking and cowering.  Some people cried out in fear and pain.  After a minute of wincing with the pain of light, I ventured a valiant look around.  My world was shaken by what I saw.  The entire stone valley was nothing but the basement of some building.  It was nowhere near as large as I had imagined.  In fact, it was all so very small.  In the corner sat the Fire God, now just a pathetic simple furnace.  The hill of trash that I stood on was no more than two or three feet high.  The people around me were tired, dirty fools, dressed in rags and living like barbarians, scrounging around in a basement full of junk.  We were all such miserable wretches.  The person responsible for this terrible revelation stood there, clean and tidy, standing uprightly like any civilized human.  His hair was clean and trim, and his face smooth and shaven.  Until I saw him, I did not realize how dirty I was.

 

“Put it out!” someone screamed.  A bone went flying across the room and nearly hit the intruder.

 

A bone.  Yes, it all hit me now.  We had lived our lives cannibalizing each other.  There were really only just a few of us left.  How many human lives had we destroyed?  I remembered the names of the deceased, people I had killed.  But it was all just a necessary part of nature, right?  We had every right to do it, didn’t we?

 

“It’s me, Daniel.  We opened a way out.  You can come out, now.  You can come out this way.  You can come out and be normal again,” he said, looking directly at me.

 

I looked to my right and saw Rick, the mighty hunter, curled up in a ball on the floor, crying like a baby.  Bill was a few feet away, lying on the floor as pale as death, and bleeding.  The others (were there only four of them?) scuttled like roaches, desperately looking for a place to hide under an old worn sofa, or behind a wardrobe.  I blinked hard, taking it all in.  This was not real.  This was just a bunch of grown men playing Lord Of The Flies in a basement, eating each other alive and sleeping in their own filth.  We had been living a delusion.  We thought that the basement was everything.  We thought that we were noble and good.  We thought that the evils of our world were normal.  But we were dead wrong.  This was not normal.  This was not the way it was meant to be.  We were not noble or good.  This world of ours was not everything.  It was not anything, relative to what lay outside.

 

“Come on,” Daniel said, “Come outside with me.  Let’s get you out of this place.  We’ll get you cleaned up and back home where you belong.”

 

Home.  I had vague memories of a place by that name.  It occurred to me that nothing about this place could be home.  Still, I was disgusted by myself and did not want to be.  Part of me wanted to run out of this place like a wild animal set free.  Part of me wanted to shut the door and turn out the light, so I could go back to feeling normal again.  With a wild roar, the leader of the enemy pack burst forth from behind the wardrobe and ran straight for the door, but he didn’t run through it.  He knocked Daniel out of the way and shut the door.  Then he fumbled with the switch until the lights went out again.  The world plunged back into darkness, and the temple of the Fire God sat way off in the distance, glowing softly like a beacon.  From my position way up on the hill of refuse, I glanced out over the dark valley, trying to remember what it really was, what it had seemed to be when there was light on it.  I couldn’t believe this whole great valley had been nothing but a single room.  Dazed, the enemy tribe dropped their weapons and strolled back to the temple.  Rick continued to weep like a baby beside me.

 

Still curious, I made my way down from the hill and looked for the place where the door had been.  At the base of the rock face, I found what might have been wooden steps.  I took two steps up them and felt the surface of the rock for some kind of clue.  Then, there it was, a doorknob, sitting there plainly as an obvious port to another world.  I turned it, and the light cut into the darkness.  The rock face gave way.  It was just a wooden door in a concrete wall, after all.  As I stepped through into the bright afternoon sunlight outside, there was Daniel, with a bright smile spread across his face.  He put his arm around me and cried.  He didn’t say a word, but I knew what he was thinking, “Why did you have to go in there you ol’ dope?”

 

I looked back at the door.  It was just an outside entrance to a basement, and on it was a small rusty plate that said “Evil,” and nothing more.

[/fiction]

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Geocaching and Inelligent Design

17 01 2009

One day, while I was out in the middle of nowhere, GPS receiver in hand, looking for a hidden container (a geocache), I made a startling discovery.  No, the cache was still an ammo can under a pile of rocks.  After having found more than a thousand of these things, I’m not much surprised by the container anymore.  It was the pile of rocks, themselves, that gave me pause.  Geocachers, like me, call it “geosense,” when we can arrive on the spot and instinctively point to the hiding spot.  It can be a hole in a knotty oak, or a small cairn, or even a single rock, covering the cache.  Seeing a small pile of rocks next to a path where no other piles exist is a no-brainer, but when the ground is covered with rocks and rock outcroppings, a small pile of rocks is nothing out of the ordinary.  However, there’s a subtle difference between a pile of rocks that happened naturally and one that was carefully placed to cover a box.  It’s almost impossible to describe.  The uninitiated wouldn’t even notice the difference.  Even an experienced geocacher would not notice it, unless he already happened to be looking for it, but there I was, standing amidst a large rock outcropping, looking at rocks that had fallen down between  large boulders.  Rocks were everywhere, but the exact spot that hid the container was apparent by the way the rocks were carefully positioned to cover the entire surface of the box.  A natural pile just doesn’t sit that way.  You don’t get flat rocks lying horizontally on top and vertically on the side, and all bunched together in just one spot like that, unless they were placed there by somebody.  Until you learn to see it, it just doesn’t stand out.  A natural pile has complete disorder and serves no purpose, while an artificial one has slightly less disorder and serves a definite purpose.  I realized that what I had learned to see was intelligent design at it’s lowest level.  Granted, it’s nowhere near as intelligently designed as the box that it hides, but, then, the box is not nearly as intelligently designed as the GPS receiver that was used to find it.  Then again, for that matter, the receiver was nothing close to the level of design of the living human being that used the GPS to find the box that was hidden by the pile of rocks.  Compared to the intelligent design of the hand that pulled the rocks from the pile, that pile contained almost no discernable design, but it was enough that I could arrive on scene and immediately point to those rocks, and not any others, and say, “There it is!”

Ironically, Geocaching.com is unapologetically Darwinistic in its propaganda.  From its APE caches (Alternative Paths of Evolution), to its Earth caches (which must be approved by a “scientific” authority and deemed agreeable to their naturalistic dogma), it’s fair to say that the founders are missing their own geosense.  They see the design in the pile of rocks, but they miss the design in the human that found it.

Hear that?  It’s the sound of the obvious as it flies over your head.
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