Prayer Critic

Last week we exhibited the artwork of three congregants. Either through subtle genius (Carol Miller) and/or the guiding hand of the Holy One, each artist’s work exists in its own rarified space. Howard Fineman works in photography: paper. Bette Ann Libby works in mosaic and sculpture: clay. Iris Sonnenschein works in quilts and tapestries: cloth. Paper, clay, and cloth. Three absolutely different media. If you mush them together you get a mess. But if you watch how our artists work with their chosen substances of expression, you get to see profound things happen; things like art.
What makes art good art is, of course, the foundational kernel of art criticism. Men and women have, for centuries, relied upon the judgment of others to help them decide a) whether or not they should see a particular play or go to a particular exhibit, etc., or b) once they’ve seen a particular play or exhibit, what exactly they saw.
Sometimes criticism is vital. There ARE complicated pieces of art or films that are more fully appreciated when seen through the prism of a scholar/educated observer. I truly benefit from the criticism of Roger Ebert, for instance. He understands every aspect of filmmaking and therefore has a more complete sense of how editing moves a film along. And it’s true that if he writes a negative review of a movie, I will definitely not go to the cinema to see it. Maybe a glance when it comes on tv, but I won’t spend theater money. Ebert, like any great critic, is a mentor, a teacher.
I also like good art criticism because I never learned anything in college or rabbinic school about art. At all. It’s a gaping hole in my education, so I need a good guide to help me contextualize it . What are all of those objects doing on the canvas in Renaissance painting? When Jackson Pollock painted Blue Poles, was he primarily composing or was he feeling? Do abstract artists know what it is they are going to create? Did John Coltrane hear a solo in his head before he played it?
I am all in favor of the critic as Seeing Eye dog, as canary in the coal mine of culture. The critic is the priest, the intermediary between the art and the beholder/listener. I’ve wondered about this model for contemporary praying. Sure in the old days we had priests who were our intercessors. But maybe it’d be nice to have a prayer critic or coach – and I include myself as a person who could benefit. Where to focus our words, how to use meditation in our prayers, what some other models of prayer may look like?
Our relationship to and with God can be so deeply intimate. But if we don’t think about that relationship, if we don’t nurture it, explore its various dimensions, then it remains superficial and unsatisfying. We can better define and nurture our spiritual lives, but not alone. The more we can learn about our relationship to God, the more deeply powerful prayer becomes. Perhaps just by asking each other a question or two about how we pray – or don’t pray – we can shake loose some perspective that we haven’t had before. Not critiquing prayer styles, or absence of prayer styles, but encouraging with words of respect and curiosity. I don’t know how we might accomplish this, but it occurs to me that sacred people already have the tools: consciousness, empathy, tradition, knowledge.
In fact if we think of the art of prayer, it may give us the courage to mold our prayers like clay, to stitch together our prayers like fabric, to compose our prayers like a photo. We become the critic and the artist all at once.
Shabbat Shalom
rebhayim

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