Friday, February 09, 2007

AD: Breaking the Rules


At a museum recently I saw early paintings by Mondrian done in a representational style. Then in another room were the works he is known for: blocks of color confined by black grids on a stark white ground, a style called "neo-plasticism." In one of the earlier representational paintings I saw him already experimenting with the use of line to confine color in the way he painted tree branches against a sunset. It was interesting to see seeds of his later abstractions in his earlier expressionism.

Painters who stretched and grew to the extent of creating new genres as Mondrian did usually began with highly representational technique, then became less and less concerned with showing the world as it appears on the surface and more and more concerned with how they perceive the world beneath the surface, or perhaps is it more accurate to say how they perceive the world within themselves. Some people malign their work because the result may not be "pretty," but they misunderstand the goal of art, which is to communicate the ineffable.

I respect Mondrian and artists like him for their willingness to look foolish as they break the rules to try to reach that end. People stand in front of Mondrian’s abstract compositions and say, “My kid could do that,” and in the strictest sense, they are right. Mondrian endured such criticism from those who said he had no talent and could do no better. It may be true that he could do no better, but that was not because he had no talent. Mondrian did beautiful early work that proves he knew the rules and could paint brilliantly according to them, yet he chose to risk ridicule in pursuit of the ineffable.

I believe that kind of unconcern for convention is one of the prerequisites of faith. Like Mondrian, most of us must begin with complex rules and slowly weed them out one by one until we arrive at a place of simple understanding, while a few begin with that simplicity as children and never lose it. However we get there, the deepest faith can be compared to a drawing by a child who did not follow rules.

As a Christian writer, I pursue the One whose face cannot be seen, much less described with words. And to the extent that we are made in the image of that Ineffable One, I also strive to express the inexpressible about humanity. I am working on a novel now in hopes of drawing the reader into the mind of a character who is losing her sanity because she has turned away from God. It is something like Mondrian's neo-plasticism in that I hope to use the senses to explore and communicate things that lie beyond the senses, and I fear the result may seem simplistic or childish to some, especially because this character experiences life in ways beyond a sane person’s understanding.

It's the first time I have been frightened of writing. Rules are definitely being broken, with deliberation, and for specific reasons, and as I break the rules I feel small and foolish for daring to set foot on the vast creative landscape lying beyond them. I wonder if Abraham felt something like this as he took Isaac up Mariah, commanded to sacrifice morality on the altar of the Source of all morality. The limits and boundaries of rules can give comfort, but they can also cause stagnation in your faith (or art) unless you are willing to weed them out and get back to a childlike, trusting place.

Occupying the moral high ground at the wide bottom of the mountain, the Pharisees said, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do the other thing.”

In a narrow place at the top, Jesus just said, “Love.”

Yet like Mondrian’s early work, before Abraham could break the rules in pursuit of the Ineffable he had to know them very well, otherwise he would have been nothing but another silly man, justifying his own sin. Similarly, this business of breaking rules to communicate the ineffable is at once a burden and an advantage for the Christian novelist: a burden, because we have seen the face of the Ineffable and therefore will be held to a higher standard in terms of expressing Him to the best of our ability, and an advantage because, while other writers merely have a suspicion there is something more beyond the words, we know exactly what it is our words can never quite express.

Athol Dickson

Author of The Gospel According to Jesus – What my Jewish friends taught me about Jesus, and of River Rising. For more information, visit http://www.atholdickson.com .

8 Comments:

At 4:52 PM, Anonymous BJ said...

<"Similarly, this business of breaking rules to communicate the ineffable is at once a burden and an advantage for the Christian novelist: a burden, because we have seen the face of the Ineffable and therefore will be held to a higher standard in terms of expressing Him to the best of our ability, and an advantage because, while other writers merely have a suspicion there is something more beyond the words, we know exactly what it is our words can never quite express.">
_____

What a wonderful "standard" to challenge the writer of Christian literature, Athol--one to keep at the very forefront of our efforts.
Really appreciated this entry.

BJ

 
At 9:15 AM, Blogger Carol Umberger said...

<"The limits and boundaries of rules can give comfort, but they can also cause stagnation in your faith (or art) unless you are willing to weed them out and get back to a childlike, trusting place.>"

As a recovering perfectionist, this post--these words in particular-- brought clarity to my battle. All in all a thought provoking post, Athol. Thank you.

 
At 9:50 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Wonderful post!

 
At 10:05 AM, Blogger Rachel Hauck said...

Athol,

I love the premise of your new work. Will pray for the heart and mind of God to be with you as your write.

And, if anyone can break the rules, it's you. :)

Rules in writing are wonderful, but can be limiting and stifling at times when trying to explore the heart of a character.

I appreciate your insight and thoughts.

Rachel

 
At 12:30 PM, Blogger Michelle Pendergrass said...

See, this is why I like you. A rule-breaker after my own heart.

Missed your posts!

 
At 2:46 PM, Anonymous Nicole said...

Rule breaking for the sake of "communicating the ineffable" through the leading of the Spirit is undeniable. It simply must be done.
Rule breaking for the sake of "because I can" puts the "artist" at the controls and though he may succeed in his efforts to appeal to the world, he has lost the appeal to the heart of man.

 
At 7:58 PM, Blogger Gina Holmes said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 8:00 PM, Blogger Gina Holmes said...

Great post, Athol. I know this struggle. It's comforting to be at a place where you know the rules and every one broken was deliberate and well thought out. I agree the premise of the wip sounds awesome.

7:58 PM

ps. That above delete was me. I misspelled without deliberate intentions :)

 

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