FOR GOD OR FOR MAN ?
In Igrot HaRa'ayah, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook addresses the problem of any intellectual or creative obsession:
Overenthusiasm is objectionable, even at the pinnacle of the sublime. Our commitment to the upright is modified by the biblical warning, "do not be overrighteous,"(Ecclesiastes 7:16). Inspired by Wisdom, we yet declare (ibid.): "Neither make thyself overwise." Similarly, "it is not good to eat much honey" (Proverbs 25:27). This represents the quintessential principle of our Eternal People. We reject the addiction and blind submission to any particular idea...Let us shun the intemperate exaggeration of even the noble and the sublime...the beautiful is apt to degenerate into vulgar and gross intoxication, once divorced from the grand and true, the scientific and ethical." (Igrot HaRa'ayah 1, pp.203-206)It is notable that Rav Kook's warnings concerning the problem of deep immersion are not exclusive to any discipline, He recognizes the tendency toward extremes in human nature, wherein even the most exalted of tasks may deviate from their original intents and turn into vulgar obsession. Rav Kook makes this statement in the context of a discussion of the role of art in religion. He understands the biblical injunction against graven images, expressed in the decalogue in Exodus, followed several chapters later by the appointment of B'tzalel, commissioned by God to fashion the vessels of the Tabernacle, to mean that there is in fact a place for art in Judaism. B'tzalel is the only artist mentioned in the Torah. God enabled his talents to be consecrated toward a communal religious need. The Talmud, in Tractate Berakhot, notes that his name is a composite of the words "b'tzel el," meaning "in the shadow of God." With the perils of artistic obsession in mind, this idea informs us of how the Jewish artist should see himself and his mission with respect to God.
In general, it easy to forget about God in the presence of great art and music. Our admiration rests in the human creator of that thing, and not in his divine partner. Lacking a recognition of the Divine, our faithfulness to the statement "I have set God always before me" (Psalms 16:8) becomes questionable. Furthermore, the idea of God as a component in our creative processes is an abstract one and so the problem of art becomes its ability to generate egocentrism. As such, we are more likely to think of art as a product of our own minds, unable to recognize that it is He [God] who gives thee power.
The commandment "Thou shalt have no other gods besides Me" (Exodus 20:3) is followed in the next verse by the prohibition against the fashioning of graven images. This raises another problem of art, namely aesthetic worship, the worship of beauty. In my own experience, the creation of something beautiful has been entirely intoxicating and fulfilling. I maintain that this is why so many artists and musicians spend much of their time in solitude; little can compare with the pleasure generated by creating beauty, especially when it is an expression representative of some emotion inside the artist. In this respect, I experience a feeling of inconsistency, moving from the studio to the beit midrash, the study hall, where I am forced to shift my gaze from "I" to "Thou." This especially relates to my relationship with God, but it also makes the communal nature of religious practice difficult at times. Where arts preach introspection and necessitate a self-centeredness, my religion forces me to move outside my own mind, in conjunction with a group of individuals.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries hold fast to the idea of "l'art pour l'art," or "art for art's sake." Modern artists have maintained that their work need not be representational: the boundaries of definition become unlimited. This ambiguity has been compounded by my experiences. I see not "art for art's sake," but rather, "art for the artist's sake." To some extent, this relates to an element of the autobiographical in all art, since it is an extension of its creator, but I refer more to the pleasure generated by its creation.
Artists have traditionally lived in the same areas and shared ideas and inspirations, giving rise to communities within cultures. I have observed that people unfamiliar with art often dismiss artists as "artsy" or "esoteric" thereby neglecting to confront and question the legitimacy of the pursuit. The position of the artist himself has always been a tenuous one, since art itself has often been the product of passion and introspection--a dramatic contrast to the mundane nature of everyday life. I believe that this "otherness" lies in the characteristic self-absorption necessary to produce art, but we must evaluate the ends. The validity of the idea of "art for art's sake," as mentioned above, lies at the center of this debate. At the end of his preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes, "the only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely."
Utility and admiration should logically run parallel to each other, but Wilde's statement, which relates to the artist and his audience, seems to argue to the contrary. It is noteworthy that he follows this statement with the concluding remark, "all art is quite useless." If so, we must explore the appropriateness of our admiration for art, as Judaism advocates a purpose in all aspects of life.
Jewish artists, especially those observant of halakha, have always confronted the issue of modesty in figure drawing, which is a basic part of all artistic training, and the difficulties implied by the biblical injunction against fashioning idols, a confusing commandment at a time in which the temptation of idol worship no longer exists. It is necessary, however, to recognize that the major problem of art is not the issue of modesty or idol worship, but of self-worship. For me, this latter problem, compounded by the questionable ends of art, renders this issue irreconcilable. The problems remain.
It may be argued that I have neglected to deal with the
difficulties. Confronting the visual arts with a lack of guidelines and
adequate means of evaluation and criticism has frustrated me. As a result,
I have turned to a "disciplined" art, that of architecture. My previous
love for art finds its expression in structures whose utility as objects
of art give legitimacy to my love for the discipline. Architecture is an
art form which must ultimately conform on some level to structural codes
and be solid enough to withstand the elements. As an art of permanence, it
is not without its dangers, since it is an enduring monument to one's
talent, but it still satisfies the question of productivity and purpose
that I believe should motivate all activities of the religious person. The
challenge remains to consecrate one's God given talents in the service of
something other than one's ego.