exchange of letters with Reb Yehoshua Wiseman, hy”v:
It is entirely possible that certain art can appear very spiritual, and be seemingly motivated by a struggle to distinguish truth from falsehood and good from bad and to choose good and to reject bad; yet in truth, be nothing but an awesome demonstration of the power of sheker which the Holy blessed One imbued into His creation in order to test man with the ultimate challenge in order to reward fully his choice of good.
Dear R David shlit’a
Could you please add perush how the creations convey the message- i am a total amhaaretz
Shalom Reb Yehoshua.
I can think to answer your request by copying a letter which I recently responding to someone who asked me to explain the meaning of a different drawing:
Very cool. What is the meaning of the work?
It is practically impossible to explain the meaning of the work in words. As far out as it may sound, I think the true meaning of the work is what it means to you. This has become my life’s work–to develop a visual language to express the most innermost musings of my heart, whose origins, in truth, transcend this world, so that [particularly a Jewish] viewer, who also seeks a true deep connection to Hashem, Yisborach, will have the meaning of the artwork translated into the language of his own heart. Even if he won’t be able to express in words what he understands, nevertheless, his soul will be aroused to come closer to Hashem.
I thought it might also help to copy for you here the entire article I wrote from which the “sentence of description” under the drawing was taken:
(2010) Small thesis on art history to this day.
One certainly must wonder: one looks at a painting of DeKooning, of Rothko, of Pollack, of Guston. They are all (and Still, Hoffman, Newman,…) obviously struggling deeply with themselves and their world, and laboriously translating their understanding onto the flat canvas, again wrestling tirelessly with the contradiction of image and paint, that is: form (apparent) and matter (real), that is: illusionary depth and illusory sense of movement and rhythm, stemming from deep emotional involvement, and a cohesion of painter and painting, a deep unspeakable dialogue which penetrates to the essence of consciousness itself, and conscience, every emotion, every thought, again, with the possibility of moments of unity between actor and medium that reach an apex such that thought itself, emotion itself, can nearly be expressed, and preserved there on the canvas, and with all this—the contradiction never vanished; it is only paint on canvas, no life, no movement, no depth, that is, they plumbed, certainly, devoted their whole being to the clash between truth and falsehood penetrating the heart of the question, what is reality?
Considering so, one is certainly given to wonder, How can it be that not one of them “became religious” as people say, or in scholarly language: discovered the truth, actually? How could they not come to recognize the A-mighty Creator? And it will not help to answer: who knows that they were not private worshipers of the true living G-d. Our sages already tell us: an unlearned person cannot be pious and an ignoramous fear sin, If they truly recognized Hashem they certainly would have come to practice His precepts. It seems a big question, but I am forced into only one conclusion.
This work is ultimately shallow. Impossible to believe. For all their genius and greatness of spirit and with their expressed purpose to strip art of its pretenses they still didn’t arrive at the truth. They didn’t merit seeing the light. They didn’t plunge deeply enough, or became sidetracked in their search, or something similar. If so, they remain, “a shop-window for the evil inclination” in the words of HaRavDessler, ztz”l, they exhibit the great storm and tempest of existence—but not really. Not really. They remain a fake. They didn’t makeTsheuvah. (See what it says in Sefer Nezer Yisrael, Moadim, Chanukah, the matter of klipat noga, thatis; even as kedusha itself it is possible that it is external, see there. enough for the understanding ones.)
Avraham Avinu searched for truth and found it. They didn’t. In other words they didn’t really search for truth. Or they searched for truth and settled for less, probably art, they settled for art which is, as its name implies, artifice, in other words falsehood. Such a waste; to search for fire and settle for water. How can it be? Testimony to the extraordinary “genius” of the Creator, Blessed is He that made the challenge of man the ultimate challenge, nothing less, and put him in a world where the lure of falsehood is so great that it remains unfathomable even to some of the apparent great warriors for truth and goodness, let us say. And their goal escapes them entirely. Fortunate is one who stops and ponders this truth I am saying here. What a nora world the Creator made! What a life! All this struggle and you end up with nothing at all!?! Miss the boat entirely!?! It’s not fair.
(2014) I am inclined to mediate these words and invoke compassion; for certainly, the Creator does not hold back reward for every small movement that a human directs himself toward Him, and it seems most likely that there was much true meditation and search for truth on the part of these and other artists; and in any case, I did not set our here to judge them; rather my intent here, was to try to understand, that which is still puzzling to me, how that a searcher of truth would not find his goal if his search was indeed sincere? I am essentially left with my initial conclusion, yet I wished to mediate my words if they sounded harsh, as if I am incompassionate to the difficulties of reaching the truth. I have sympathy, for this life is certainly hard and the difficulties and barriers toward the truth great and many. So I ask for Hashem’s mercy for all those who would set out to seek Him, to let them find Him. And for those who merit to mount the strength to overcome the powerful lure of falsehood, let them see these examples as testimony of the great obstacles that they merited to overcome, that they didn’t let themselves be deceived.
I am aroused to write an adjunct to the above words by something I saw written on Mark Rothko, examining the question of whether he was a person of faith; the words were entirely speculation and not important, but I saw that abounded there ideas of ‘secular spirituality’,Hashem Yerachem, and this subject seems important for me to address, because I know that we live in a time of rampant epikorsus and heresy, the degree of which has never existed from the beginning of this world until now, and if it be in my power to weaken this curse to any degree I would and will spend my every breath to do so…so as I find myself working and writing in the basin of ‘art’ so I will speak in this area. Secular spirituality is nothing more than pure avodah zara; for Hashem, Yisborach created everything with it’s exact opposite (Koheles 7:14), and just as there is service of Hashem, Yisborach, with tefillot and learning Torah and the doing of His mitzvoth, also so, in the realm of the klipah there is worship and prayer and learning and teaching and the doing of many various actions all in worship and towards the end of building up the kingdom of falsehood and teumah. There are also various sects and factions and disputes and theses and theory of how best to serve and promote the secular ends, which path is more pure in its pursuit of the false end, etc. Just as in kedushah, there is in teumah.
It is known that art served the avodah zara of the false religion of Europe from approximately 1000 years ago until the period of what is known as the Renaissance; and from that time and afterwards, it is taught, art rebelled against this false religion and went through various periods of change until our day. It is very important to understand the truth of these changes, whether they represent a movement away from the earlier days of classic idol worship or whether they represent rather a change of clothes, so to speak, but still, are entirely pure in the enlisting of the forces of teumah and sheker. It is also possible that the matters are of differing degrees and it is even possible that there are multiple activities; also the pursuit of emes and also the pursuit of sheker, even in individuals; just as everyone has a yetzer tov and a yetzer harah, and until he masters himself, sometimes he is serving this and sometimes that.
I do not know that I have the insight to distinguish among the differing periods of art, and among differing artists, to which end they directed themselves, towards truth or towards falsehood, but what I can say is that it is entirely possible that certain art can appear very spiritual, and be seemingly motivated by a struggle to distinguish truth from falsehood and good from bad and to choose good and to reject bad; yet in truth, be nothing but an awesome demonstration of the power of sheker which the Holy blessed One imbued into His creation in order to test man with the ultimate challenge in order to reward fully his choice of good. That is, that He provided that there be free and ample opportunity for those who prefer to lie, steal, cheat, deceive, etc. that they should be able to succeed with their goals and prosper in their ways and exhibit to the world that behold; their ways are blessed and hold light, are wholesome and true; the very opposite of the truth. All this, for the sake that the Jew should see and feel the evil and seek to take refuge and connect to his holy neshama and seek themes and the true good. Indeed it is also for the sake of the Gentile, to choose and reject the evil which poses as good, and to desire to live a righteous life according to the light of the Torah and to live according to the Seven Laws of Benai Noach or even to make gerus if he or she is so moved.
Yes, it is clear that entire movements and epochs of art history, even the whole of art history can be even complete avodah zara; certainly this is possible. (much can and perhaps will be written on this, yet the pure of heart certainly will have already understood.)
It’s fair. Don’t let yourself be deceived. Don’t. This is the key. Fortunate is the lot of the simple Jew who has his faith intact and struggles for it against all odds. May Hashem in His great mercy spare us all from the lot of those who stray. Amen.
The word for art in the Holy tongue doesn’t carry the meaning of falsehood. amenut, is, in general terms, craft or trade, and its connotation is that of useful practicality, of vital import and substance , and not fabrication or caprice. Witness—the Talmud asks: What is the amenut (craft) of the Jew? What is his trade? [His true occupation, his ‘calling’] What is his art, so to speak. And answers: to be eilaim. To be dumb. To guard his tongue. This is certainly the height of seriousness, and has nothing to do with falsehood.
For further discussion 1) Root of word emunah amenut, 2) the piece of Talmud above, that an Uman is dumb. This is an artist, who communicates without speaking.
I hope that this has helped some. I am finding it difficult at this point to write new material explaining the meaning of my artwork. I can add one point which perhaps can help. For me, the true power of art is in that it is a language which can communicate even very sublime realities and very deep levels of the soul; that is it [has the potential] to communicate between two human beings, the artist and the viewer, though a language that is purely visual.
Despite all that I wrote above, I still believe that there is a least a strain in the history of art, of a search for truth. (I have written about this in different places, and I haven’t the strength to repeat myself here.) This point that I mention here, I believe, is part of what the modern artist’s were searching to exploit in their abandonment of representation (c.f. my blog “art as an expression of a search for truth” on page one of my blogs (davidbwolk.com/blog) and “understanding abstract art” on page five of the blog) as a grasp of the the true power of painting to speak to the heart and the subconscious, a communication which transcended word. (this point requires much elaboration, but this isn’t the place) Representation in painting is close to word, verbal language; representational paintings have a “narrative aspect.”
I have said: if the painting needs to be explained then something was left out of the painting; the painter retained some kind of verbal explanation within himself which he would use to speak about his work to others. If he put “everything into the painting” then he will not be able to explain it, for the language of painting is separate from word, it is only visual and has no sound. It is the world of thought as and not the world of dibur..[thus, pure painting, as I am describing, can be very dangerous; and thus, mainly, avodah zara is through visual arts, because of it’s power to speak fully and directly to the very deepest parts of the person. If one does not paint pure painting for the pure sake of avodas Hashem, Heaven forbid….]
Thus the artwork I pictured, and the words under the artwork are two separate things. the words are not a description of the meaning of the artwork, rather a entity unto itself (for I do believe that it is important to discuss much about art (that is connected to avodas Hashem) even the the artwork itself is impossible to speak of.)
I speak in short, here, for I haven’t the ability to elaborate as is needed now. I am sorry for the confusion my mail brought to you, and I hope this has helped some.
all the very best, always,
Dear Rabbi David
I read your words
Question- do you really think that these famous secular artist struggled to achieve emet
I don’t know
however my gut conception is that they struggled to establish a fancy name for themselves through tapping on their natural inclination towards ruchani stuff-
who really does soul searching?
who really cares about achieving truth?
regarding your understanding of not giving training wheels to the spectator of your art
I can understand that this is your goal – in making art which somehow shoots straight to the core of the viewer and in this way influences
I hwvr think that there is definitely a place and importance- at least w some art and artists
to give the viewer a stepladder and a boost
after all the artist is usually quite sophisticated (in relation to the viewer) the artist has worlds of thoughts and ideas that prompted the painting and the viewer doesn’t necessarily know any of this.
Just as if i were to show an ilan of the sfirot painted in many colors to non-scholarly Jew
i would at first explain whatwherewhenhow to some degree to allow the viewer to see whats going on.
whats a matter w tell the view why i chose to make the sky purple or green?
Why not educate the viewer about Torah vav so that he knows what baki bayl baki bnafik means.
(we all need more yeda and chochma)
True, a musician rarely explains to his listening why he chose this note or that
but visual art is different
(maybe some musicians should explain… )
a picture is worth K words is a famous adage not bc the pic is totally removed from verbage
anyways, maybe all that i am saying is just a reflection of where i am standing in my art career
however the real reason why i initiated the dialog is bc i sincerely respect you and believe in you hwvr i just don’t relate well to the artwork that you send me and i thought that beyond my coarseness and impatience maybe i was just lacking some akdamos to be able to enjoy the hard work you invest in your creations.
I might ask why even title your work bc the title itself tells the viewer that this piece is about such or such- hwvr once you have give the title then I thinks that it fair to make some additional verbal explanation btwn the title and the piece— or maybe not….
By the w i showed your work to another artist Shay Azoulai and he appreciated the work.
Torah hee vlilmod ani tz’
todah raba, Yehushua for all your needed words.
I will write here some of my reactions.
1. On one side you are definitely correct about the secular artists and their lack of concern for truth, etc., nevertheless it is hard to overlook that behind everything that almost all the people of the world chase their whole lives, vanity and more vanity, nevertheless there is a nekudah of emes inside (especially every Jew) whose true desire is only to serve Hashem, and it is almost impossible to extinguish this nekudah. Rav Avigdor Miller, z”l wrote that truly everyone is searching only for Hashem; those those who travel the world seeking whatever they think they are seeking are truly seeking Hashem, for truly everything searches to return to it’s source; and if vadai the yetzer harah is real and operative in everyone to even completely blind them from the desires of their soul, nevertheless to extinguish the power of the soul entirely is very hard. So perhaps because of that nekudah I judge these artists the kaf zcut that perhaps at least some of their motivations were good………….
2. As far as the inyan of my work and training wheels…I agree with you, it is important to provide introductions as much as one can, and I am in much pain that I am not able to provide more than I do. The Rebbe, z”l speaks about this much, of two separate conflicting needs, one: to attach himself to Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu to the fullest extent, and inherent in this is his separation from the world, and second to be with the world and to give to them, “for all the gedula was only given to Moshe for the sake of the am” (see Likutey Moharan Kama 49). These two realities were a matter of difficulty for him, as he writes in many places. And ultimately he explains that Likutey Moharan was “as low as he could reach”, His Torah being so high, that he could not clothe it an any more down-to-earth form, yet for us it is still almost way beyond reach.
For an artist, for me, it is similar thing. For the art to be truly meaningful I must cut off all barriers that prevent me from reaching “shamyaim u’mae’al ha’shamayim”. This doesn’t make it easy for me in many ways, but I try not to think about this. The reason I entered art was only for the sake of the spiritual potential in it.
I try to provide ladders as much as I can, and HaKadosh Baruch Hu presents with with many opportunities which force me to make my work more accessible, such as commissioned works where people want to see some kind of recognizable image… nevertheless my soul yearns for Chatzrot E-lokinu, and I can’t suppress tefilla that I will reach the day when I will be free from having to do commissions, and be be able to enter the spiritual entirely. I have emunah that the work, even if it not understood, still affects. I know that there are places that I can reach that can offer very much to the world, that I am unable to reach now because I am so tied to the earth. And there are many who encourage me and say that they prefer seeing, and owning, davka the works that haven’t any compromise. The truth is powerful, whether it is appreciated or not, and in the end only the truth will conquer all.
3. “True, a musician rarely explains to his listening why he chose this note or that but visual art is different. ” How? Why? Because the work is still in front of our eyes and not lost in the past, as music? If we tape record the music and stop it here and there and ask him what did you mean here, and here.. Is there still a difference?
Like I mentioned in my first response: art is a language unto its own, and the more that the art is pure, the more it becomes untouchable by words. I often say: If I could have expressed the idea in words then why paint it? I paint only that which I can’t express in words.
b’cavod rav, enjoying very much all you have to say. seeking great mercy and salvation always
pencil on paper