Two Pennies Left: Why The “How” of a Thing Matters

The Two Pennies Flower

FYI, up front, this post is not about flowers.  It is about content and form in art-making, conversation, and relationship.   It’s about the connection of human essence and identity to the fundamental, structural realities aesthetic forms demand.   It’s about the challenge of creating art wherein form and content create a unity of power and affect.   And perhaps, it about why I secretly churn when joy over rich content obliterates the discussion of that richness delivered in middling form.

In an age of rising global concern over injustice, poverty, hunger, homelessness, and emergency responses to tsunamis, tornadoes, and political upheaval, the old Chinese Proverb (that I would love to have some real history on) seems a bit ludicrous, especially if you take it in an old-fashioned literal sense, as if it’s a levitical law.  I’ve seen this proverb at least three ways.

  • When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other.
  • If you have two pennies, spend one on bread to give you life, and one on a flower to give meaning to your life.
  • If you have two pennies, spend one on bread and the other on a flower.  The bread will sustain life.  The flower will give you a reason to live.
Most websites I saw as I googled this (“two pennies bread flower”) put up a picture of a flower, stuck the quote underneath, and left it at that, figuring the reader gets the point.  But whenever I trot out this idea out, I inevitably get pushback from the literalists in the group who think it’s ridiculous.  50% for beauty?  If you had a $100 million dollars to give, you’d have us slice off $50 mil of it for…what?  Flowers?  Paintings?  Music? Bright color fabric instead of feed sacks?   Spend money teaching one person to dance, and let three others die hungry?  Ungodly, wasteful, and selfish.  Absurd, really, as sentiment tears usually are.

Sound like anybody you know?

Stay with me here: this came to mind this morning while reflecting on the importance of the “how” of a thing.   It’s a personal thing, I know: read about us INFP’s (Myers-Briggs again), and you’ll discover that often, to us, the answer to the question at hand is far less important than the tone and atmosphere of the interactions taking place–in other words, the “how” of the conversation is just as important as the “what.”  Equally important.   Sometimes more so. 

For me, content=what, form=how.  Art happens when the two come together in skillful, multi-layered fashion.  Some artists begin with the “what” (the bread, the idea, the content), and then struggle with the “how” that actual materials demand, be they words, play structures, or pigments.   Others begin with the “how” (the flower, the paints, the colors, the lines and shapes), manipulating them on a path of discovery that leads to ideas and content–the what–in a process that becomes so unified that it’s nearly impossible to tell where the how ends and the what begins.

I like the first rendition of the quote above: When you only have two pennies left in the world…speaks of essence, foundations, fundamentals of being human.  At the end of things, in final breaths, in desperate, nail-biting times, we are content and form, mostly broken in both places, often trying to dance our fading hearts and meanings on sore and bleeding feet.  But if you give me salve for my feet and warn me that I must give up dancing, you show little understanding of my me-ness.   My dance-ness.

When in the theatre, I often thrill at messages given, and shake my head at forms they come in.  Truly, I am as interested in forms as I am messages.   Sometimes–and here I confess my heretical nature–I think I might just as soon see a questionable message in strong form as a good message in lousy form.   Even as I type those words, I balk at them a bit, and know I’m not 100% serious about it, because bad ideas delivered in beauty can wreck and destroy.  On the other hand, and we all know this, ideas of the “good” delivered poorly often change lives for the better.  God’s arrival via bad art is an everyday occurrence.  How many passionate artists are honest enough to say they wish that wasn’t true.

Here’s the rub: “hows” are hard.  Great delivery of “hows” is very hard.   Isn’t a good “what” enough?  To mean well, to speak life-giving ideas, to even garner praise from people who, because of culture, education, and preference, have a hard time telling one “how” from another…isn’t that enough?  After all, as I’ve mentioned, good gets done either way, doesn’t it?

There are more things in heaven and earth, though, than we dream of.  Shakespeare’s tipping of the hat to the mystery of how sacrifice and beauty work on us as we pursue them is profound.   We long to know the good, even the best ways of living, and as artists, we seek to express, communicate, inspire, and compel.  To do it, we have to grapple hard and long with ways of doing things, with material, with forms and structures.  We hammer and stretch, build and wreck, thrill and strain under heavy lifting, and all the while, as we long for the great moment of aesthetic unity in which artistic power engulfs an audience, transformation is already engulfing us.

Bread and flower, destination and journey, flesh and spirit.

Content and form.

The -ness of the human lies in these unities, and the soulful physical labor to bring these tensions into a taut and graceful dance is the birthplace–not of great meaning alone nor great form alone–but of that which we call great art.

The night of theatre that changed my life?  One in which I did not understand one word spoken.

But, oh, did I get it.

I’ll take the bread and the flower…

One Reply to “Two Pennies Left: Why The “How” of a Thing Matters”

  1. Thank you for this. I stumbled upon your page whilst looking for the origin of the two-pennies-bread-flower proverb, and your page – while still leaving me in the dark as to the etymology – was delightfully thought provoking and more nourishing than the tidbit of trivia I’d initially set out to find.

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