Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Objective Value in Art

"Art is like a joke: if you have to explain it then it sucks"

I recently visited the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and got embroiled in a conversation on the value of art, and in particular the value of modern art. This is an age old question, and more specifically this question: does art have (can art have) objective value, or is its value purely subjective? Surely the value of art resides in the effect (the affect) it has on the observer, so the value of art is by very nature a subjective thing.

Art has value if it produces a worthwhile affect (including whether or not we like it), if it moves (or resonates) emotionally with the viewer, if it stimulates the viewer to intellectual thought, or if the art provides some commentary on society, humanity or the world around us (does the art "speak to us"). Modern art attempts to do this in abstraction, by removing recognisable representation of the world it can (potentially) speak to a deeper part of us than merely the conscious and rational mind. Abstraction can (in theory) evoke primal feelings and thought patterns we aren't even aware are part of us.

Artists have, with the collusion of museums, placed literally "random trash" on display - with the apparent argument that the emotional response created, the thought processes stimulated, provide the value in such artwork. But if the value in art is the affect on the viewers (possibly a big if) then this is something we can determine. The artistic skill, and therefore to some extent, the artistic merit in any piece of art is the ability of that art to create a response beyond the response created by something that took no artistic skill. It is likely that there is some value in people going to museums and engaging with themselves as they view artwork - this is the value in viewing "random trash" and perceiving how that affects them and what commentary it makes on society. We can use "random crap in a frame" (or random blobs on a canvas), art that takes no artistic skill to create, as control art. Art only takes genuine artistic skill, has objective value beyond the subjective response that a person creates for themself, if on average it tends to create a stronger response than work that takes no skill to produce.

So here's an experiment I'd love to see, from any modern artist brave enough to test if their work has objective artistic merit. Create a piece of art using as little skill as possible, in as short a time as possible, say "random crap in a frame". Show viewers this piece of art along with a "genuine" piece of art and ask viewers to report their response to engaging with both pieces of art (in a blind test of course - the viewers don't know which piece of art is real). The response can be measured in various axes including emotional connection, appreciation (how much the viewers like the art) and intellectual stimulation. If the "genuine" art has real artistic merit then it should produce a measurably stronger response, on average when shown to enough viewers to produce a statistically significant result, than "random crap". Then we could really know whether or not the emperor is wearing any clothes... The random crap provides the control for the baseline response to being in a museum or art gallery and having to think about art, the subjective part of the experience.

This has lots of caveats of course, some genuine and some not. It maybe that the work of any individual artist is produced from a particular cultural context and only really speaks to, resonates with, people who have (or understand) that cultural context. This could very well be true, but whilst it means that the art may have been significant it also means that the art hasn't stood the test of time and is perhaps no longer significant. The claim of the artistic community may also be that modern art in particular takes particular depth and understanding to engage with - that only people who "get it" will respond to it. This claim that "we speak a different language to you" smacks of elitism (and bullshit) to me, in particular because it's unfalsifiable and actually indistinguishable from genuine bullshit. Meaning it probably is bullshit. At the very best it means the art is inaccessible and impenetrable, not qualities of "good art".

There could also be other flaws with any particular implementation of this experiment. If the "genuine art" is recognisable to any portion of the audience this will skew the result, the genuine art should also be of a similar "type" to the "crap art" so that any prejudice against modern art applies equally to both pieces.

A further criticsim could be that everything comes with cultural context. Even random crap that appears to have taken no effort to produce is a product of the time and culture of the person making it. I would hope that it's still clear that a good artist is one that can elevate us beyond the "mere average" of our current cultural context, and produce something that evokes a deeper response. If the skill of an artist is to produce nothing beyond what our current age provides for free, with no skill involved, then that artist can hardly claim artistic merit of their own.

So art can have objective value, value beyond the subjective response of any individual to that art. And potentially we can explore and know that value.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Soul, spirit and will

Watchman Nee described humans as "tripartite", consisting of spirit, soul and body.

This is a particular framing of the human condition, a way of thinking about and understanding ourselves. There are many other alternative (or complementary) ways of framing the human psyche: Freudian psychology, Myers-Briggs, the four humors and so on. Their value is in how useful they are, do they help us understand ourselves? Any particular framing may be more or less useful than another, at best they're all approximations of the truth rather than "truth" themselves.

The division of psyche into soul and spirit is an understanding I find genuinely useful. Your spirit is who you really are. You are a living spirit, you have a soul. To understand that things like memories and emotion are part of us, but they don't define us both helps explain who we are and can be freeing. Your memories, your past, don't have to define you - you have memories but they aren't "you". In pyschological speak the soul is closely related to the ego, your conception of who you are and your worldview. They colour your perceptions and shape you, but they aren't you.

Watchman Nee puts "will" as something of the soul. In my search to understand myself and the world (we're so intimately connected to the world - indeed we're the product of the world) I've come to the conclusion that this isn't the most useful understanding.

Will is our capacity (ability) to effect change. I don't think will is a separate thing in itself, it isn't a "region of our soul". The strength of will you can exert in any situation is how much of yourself can you bring to bear on it. How freed are you? So, in fact will is spirit - it's merely a way of describing spirit (who you are) as a force of action (rather than being).

The more natural (more common) situation, and the one faced by us all, is that our spirit is submerged in our soul. Who we are is buried in our habits, routines, memories and aspirations. We tend to live in the past or the future rather than the present. So the task of developing a strong will, a strong capacity for action and change, is to free who we are from the grip of our soul. To divide between soul and spirit.

Tangentially I think a similar thing is true of conscience. Conscience also doesn't seem to be a particular "region" of who we are, but as we are more aware of goodness we will be more sensitive to not doing bad things. Conscience is a description of the right operation of spirit, rather than a thing in itself.

Our daily experience of what we think of as conscience however is likely to be different this. There is a "counterfeit" conscience, a conscience of the soul, which pyschologists call the "super-ego". This is a part of the ego and is your idealised conception of self, the you that you think you ought to be. Guilt and shame often come from the promptings of the super-ego telling us that we're not living up to what we think we should be. Discerning between our real sense of how to live and the prattling of the super-ego is the same task of discerning between soul and spirit, and is the journey of a lifetime.

Talking of spirit raises the interesting question of what is spirituality? In popular opinion it's a word with no real meaning at all, and even amongst Christians there's a very hazy understanding of what it might mean. My current thinking is that spirituality and goodness are two different axes. You can be good without being spiritual and spiritual without being good. Best of all of course is to be both.

Goodness is to love.

Spirituality is self-awareness and understanding (and therefore understanding of the world around us). Spirit is who we are, and spirituality is "of the spirit", so we are more in touch with ourselves we are more "spiritual". There are some outward signs of this, freedom and an ability to flow, that can be superficial and mistaken for a genuine spirituality. As with everything the search is for real depth, in spirit and in truth.

“Each must become God-like and beautiful who cares to see God and Beauty” -- Plotinus

It's alright to be you

There has been a lot of exploration and rediscovery of God as father in my church recently. I've had my own experience of this and, as the cliche goes, it came through observing my own children.

A few days ago I was at the dentist and standing outside watching my son, Benjamin, bimble around. I know my son, who is just over one years old, and I know that his heart is full of malevolence. I know just how wilful and naughty he is, just how much of a handful he is going to be in the coming years.

Despite knowing all of this I delight in him. Watching him potter around fills me with delight, the mere fact that he exists makes me happy. I love him just as he is, just for being him.

It struck me that this is what it means that God delights in his children. I often experience God as love, as a fierce and strong love, but to feel personally loved by God is a bit different. I've often suspected that although I know God loves me, really he loves some perfected version of me - loves what I can be, or perhaps just the good bits of me. As I watched Benjamin I realised that God loves us, me, in the same way. We're God's children, and the mere fact that we exist fills him with delight. He's not waiting for us to become perfect before he loves us, he knows exactly what we like and he loves us. He loves us just as we are.

This moment of realisation has come alongside a deepening self-acceptance, a realisation that it's alright to be me. I can't be anyone else or anything else other than what I am. As much as I have failings and weaknesses, as much as I need and want to change, all I can be right now is what I am right now. God doesn't expect or demand us to be anything other than what we are. Sure we need to change, but that's all in his hands too. God loves us, takes delight in us, just as we are. Just for being us.

The more I explore who I am the more convinced I am that guilt and shame are the power of sin. The danger is that because we know how far from what we could be we are that we think we're supposed  to feel bad about it. The very opposite is true! Forgiveness means that we don't have to feel bad about who we are or what we've done. The past and the dark parts of our nature are all dealt with, God doesn't hold them against us. This is the central theme, the whole point, of Christianity. Yes we need to face the reality of who we are, take responsibility for who we are and deal with the consequences of anything we've done, but we don't need to feel bad about it.

Perhaps one of the hardest of ironies of life is that it's only as we're able to accept ourselves as we are that we're able to change. It's only as we can face what we are, our memories and the past, without flinching that we can let go of it and it loses its hold on us. Memories don't disappear, but the power they hold over us can. Guilt and shame are what stop us facing who we are, but we can choose to let go and refuse to feel bad about who we are.

It's alright to be me and it's alright to be you.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

A Varied Life

I've been homeless, in prison, at Cambridge university, worked at a London startup, been an atheist, lived in Christian community, travelled, written a book.

I've taken an extraordinary amount of drugs to the point of madness.

I've learned Tai Chi and meditation from a Buddhist community. Spent nearly a year in Romania living with Romanians.

I taught myself to program. I've spoken to an audience of thousands at conferences and been a keynote speaker in India and New Zealand. I've written code used by millions of software developers.

A varied life and I'm not done yet. And I'm still (more and more) convinced that the only thing worth a damn, the only thing to live for (more important than believing the right things) is to love.

But love fiercely.

Friday, 13 May 2016

A Biblical Worldview

The substance of Christianity has to be knowing God, otherwise our faith is nothing more than dead religion. As the bible is our only record of the life and teaching of Jesus it is rightly seen as the foundation of Christianity. Exactly what role to give to the bible, and how to understand it, can however be contentious topics, not least because views on this topic are very personal and deeply held.

For many Christians their faith requires a "bibilical worldview", seeing and understanding the world through the lens of scriptural teaching. A friend of mine recently posted a link to an article by Pastor Rick Warren on this very topic to facebook:
Here's a quote from the article:
Everyone thinks about the world through a particular lens, or filter. We refer to this filter as someone’s “worldview.” And in our post-Christian culture, most Christians have a non-Christian worldview. In other words, a big part of our preaching assignment is helping our listeners to see the world through the lens of a biblical worldview.
There are some useful things that stand as a foundation on the topic of what we mean by "scriptural truth" and a "biblical worldview". What is understood by the term "biblical worldview" has changed drastically over the generations.

For many centuries owning slaves was seen as part of a biblical worldview, supported by both old testament and new testament. Similarly forbidding women from speaking (or playing any role) in church was seen as part of a biblical worldview (again supported by the new testament). Neither of these are part of what most people nowadays mean by "a biblical worldview" now. Forbidding interracial marriage was also espoused by the church in many places, as part of a biblical worldview, not so long ago too! The remarrying of divorcees was grounds for expulsion from the church, as part of a biblical worldview, in most churches until recently.

For a long time a biblical worldview also meant believing that the earth was the centre of the universe and that the sun went round the earth.

This leads us to several important conclusions:
  1. The general understanding amongst Christians of what a biblical worldview means is not a fixed immutable truth but a fluid set of views that have changed and are changing.
  2. What "a biblical worldview" actually means is generally "a specific set of interpretations of the bible" (and any two people rarely agree fully on all the details). 
  3. The fundamentals of what would currently be called "a biblical worldview" has been shaped by several major cultural shifts over the last few centuries, including scientific progress.
  4. What we currently understand as a "biblical worldview" is unlikely to be the same set of views held by the next generation or the ones that follow. In fact elements of our current views may well be seen as abhorrent by later generations, as we see those who supported slavery.
  5. So opposing any cultural shift because it disagrees with what you see as your "biblical world view" may well be a mistake! We can't get away from having to know the heart of God (lean not on your own understanding).
Instead of striving for a "biblical worldview" I'd like to see us work to drop "worldviews" altogether and honestly search for reality as it really is instead of looking to confirm what we've already decided. That is much harder and takes real courage as we are likely to find that God isn't confined to the boxes we assign him to.

Confirmation bias, the tendency of humans to only see the parts of reality that confirm what they already believe and ignore things that contradict it, is so strong and pernicious that seeing beyond our own fallibility and really finding truth has to be a real struggle. If we're not willing to undertake this struggle the chances are we will find an idea of God, rather than the reality of God. We can't find the depths of the substance of knowing God that we long for unless we're willing to take this journey. If we want the new thing we must be willing to think and act in new ways.

This is partly the theme of my "Exploration of the Heart" article on the forward blog. Christianity only works when it's a search of the heart:
This is partly what I think Jesus meant by coming to him like a child. Children haven't built up all the filters and lens that we view the world through, but are much more open to seeing and expressing life as it really is, both for good and for bad.

This has practical consequences for my relationship with God. Coming to God, in prayer or worship, usually starts with me acknowledging that I know nothing. As I come to God I drop everything I think I know or understand, because in the presence of God it's nothing. I reach out for the reality of God, of love, determined to face reality whatever it might be mind be and however it might (or might not) conflict with what I already think I know. And yes that means I might be wrong, about anything or everything, but my understanding is growing - and generally by evolution rather than revolution. But it's a heart led search for meaning, what am I actually finding in God, in me and in life.

On how to understand the bible, alongside what we've found of God and how we see the world, I really like the work of Steve Chalke. In his work "Restoring Confidence in the Bible" he argues that the bible is the record of the revelation of the nature of God to humanity. A process of revelation that didn't just stop 2000 years ago. This means letting go of the idea that the bible is infallible (something the bible itself never claims), and having to wrestle for meaning and truth. Along the way we can still revere the incredible truths within the bible without having to do mental gymnastics to explain away the parts that we don't really follow.

Whatever path you take, enjoy the exploration and plunge heart first into the living word of God!

See also my (short) article Biblical Truth and Doctrine for related musings on this topic.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Forward Blog: Childlike Faith

The Jesus Army "Forward Blog" published an article of mine on finding childlike faith:
It’s been said that the longest journey is the distance from head to heart. Actually I think this is wrong, it’s quite a short distance; but the road only goes one way and it’s in the other direction. Christianity, our faith, is an exploration of the heart not the head. God is love, so how could it be anything else. The head can understand what the heart finds, and it can guide the search, but you just can’t make your heart believe what the mind thinks unless you really find it.

If our faith is based mainly on what we know, God can seem small and distant. No matter how powerful and amazing God is in our minds, when we pray it’s to the God of our heart. If what we’ve found of God is small, if our faith is small, then God seems far away.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Bite sized concepts: exploration of the heart

It's been a long time since I've posted. Inspiration comes and goes in waves, and mostly I feel like I've written a fair amount in the last year and it's time to prove it rather than speaking more.

In the meantime I occasionally post spiritual ruminations to twitter as @mfoord. The 140 character constraint in posting forces very bite-sized musings, which can be a useful way of clarifying (or obscuring) thinking. Here's a recent series on spirituality:

Our faith is an exploration of the heart, not the head. God is love, how could it be anything else?

In spiritual terms "heart" and "spirit" are synonymous. "mind" is the region of the heart accessible to conscious awareness.

The modern concept of psyche is the combination of spirit and soul (using Watchman Nee's potent tripartite man concept: spirit, soul & body).

So in the sense that psychology is the study of psyche, spiritual power is psychological power.

At the heart level belief in the power of love is the same as belief in God. Because God is love. Love and God are the same thing.

Belief was never the issue anyway though, faith is. Faith is nicely understood as capacity (capability) to trust.

The distance from head to heart is actually very short. But it only goes one way: heart to mind, not the other direction.

The mind can understand, and guide, what the heart is discovering. You can't force the heart to believe what the mind thinks.

Your spirit is simply who you are. You *are* a living spirit.

Soul comprises parts of you like emotions, memory and habits. You have these things but you are not defined by them.

Spirit and soul form a continuum, a spectrum, not sharply delineated. Same from body to soul (how body affects mood / emotion - e.g. pain).

The psychological concepts of id (unconscious drives), ego (conception of self) and super ego (idealised concept of self) are useful.

Roughly speaking the vague christian term "depths of our soul" corresponds to the concept of the subconscious mind.
A spiritual person knows themselves, is in touch with who they are and thereby better understands the world. A good person loves. You can be spiritual but not good, and good but not spiritual. The best of course is to be both.
Many people who think they know themselves, don't. They instead have a strong ego (concept of self) that can make it harder to know yourself.
To really know yourself, be in touch with reality, ultimately means losing ego - along with "mindsets", including the Christian mindset. (See the world as it really is - not through any lenses or "world views".)
And to some extent this means dropping all "beliefs", preconceptions about what reality is. Instead: seek and you will find.
So hold your beliefs lightly, be willing to be wrong and push deeper. This is like the scientific method and why I like rational scepticism as a spiritual approach.

The question then becomes, how hard can you push and how deep can you go? And how willing to trust yourself and God are you in the process.

Plus a final few, just because they're true:

My God is love. I believe in Love. I seek it out, serve, worship and adore love wherever I can find it.

Many atheists believe in my God. Popular culture is full of songs extolling the power of my God.
Maybe the church of Jesus and the institutionalised church are very different things. Is that such a surprise?