Friday, November 14, 2008

The Gesture of Meaning

When I was younger, I believed that the act of creating meaning would save us. There was relief in the movement toward beauty, and a sense of completeness in following the urge to voice longing and hurt. I had a physical sense of sacredness rising up behind those upwellings of emotion, illuminating the world around me. It seemed clear that by practicing that movement of release and rising beneficence in my creative work, I might be able to learn to live in accordance with it. I hoped others (someone, somewhere) could receive the beam I was sending out, and undertake to enact the gesture of meaning that had filled me by following the trace left in my music.

As I got older, though, I found a mercenary strain abiding in the professional music world working to convince me that it was more important to be eminent than to be honest, more important to have wide distribution than to communicate meaning, and far more important to generate measurable prestige than to reach for some kind of truth. Within that worldview, it follows that creating an image to push over on the crowd is primary, and connecting with individual human hearts is a secondary pursuit at best, something that has been devalued almost to the point of being worthless.

But in that worthlessness is another kind of salvation. To be worthless is to be beyond value, to exist outside of the system of economic objects, in which everything is collapsed down to its exchange value, it’s media fizz or institutional rank. We rank every single person at my university music school every year from most important to least, and let me assure you, those rankings are based almost exclusively on external validation and prestige. In such a climate, it starts to feel like a radical challenge to the prevailing moral landscape to believe in art as anything more than a means toward self-aggrandizement. Yet only if our art is born from compassion, from the recognition that every single soul is equally important will we be enlightening our society instead of putting it to sleep with illusions.

If moral values can be communicated through behavior, then they can be communicated through art, and artists can therefore influence us in our own moral convictions. It is by participating in the root assumptions presented in a work of art that we are altered–by tracing the source and the qualities of its gestures, and by turning our attention to that which it is gesturing toward. Every act, every attempt at communication is generated from a ground of assumptions about what matters. Every artistic statement puts forth a stream of actions and associations that flow from that field, and serve to represent it in the experience of the creator as well as the receiver. Meaning is something we do. The world invites us to burn up our attachment to our own importance and to dissolve into a state in which everyone and everything shines with sacredness. This is the gesture of meaning.

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