Monday, June 21, 2010

what's an artist to do?

my name is asher lev also addresses the role and/or responsibility of the artist. whether that role can be separated from the artist's cultural context, or even isolated from an (any?) engagement with the world (and therefore finding one's place within it) is one that is explored in various ways. in walking out his calling as an artist, asher is forced to confront the question of the artist's place or function in society/ culture. it's an extremely crucial issue for him -- as it is for every artist. what is the artist supposed to be doing as they pursue their work? what should be their goal? what is their purpose? how do they do achieve that?

in a previous post about my name is asher lev, i referred to the passage where asher and his father discuss why asher makes the images he does, and how there was a language gap between the ideas asher was exploring and using in his process and the communication of [the importance] those ideas to his father and, by extension, the public. within that conversation, the question is raised about the potential dangers of the pursuit of aesthetics at the expense of morality. this is partially a question about the relationship between content and form (the artistic version of "the chicken or the egg" question), but it does raise an important question about the place of morality in art, both in its making and presentation. until fairly recently, art was always expected to have a point, a purposefulness as to its content. so it would that communication, or at least the possibility of [clear] communication, was a central concern. the question is, then, what is the weight of that content? how important is it that it be true? what risks will you take to convey the truth? are you willing to offend your potential public in the pursuit of your content? does that matter?

later on, another passage describes asher's deliberations as he works in paris. he immerses himself in the art and architecture and begins working. he doesn't rush the artistic process, and lives with his blank canvases for months. then, "away from my world, alone in an apartment that offered me neither memories nor roots, i began to find distant memories of my own, long buried by pain and time and slowly brought to the surface..."(p. 306/7). asher begins to reflect on his past relatives and their experiences: his "mythic ancestor" and how he made a russian nobleman prosperous, his grandfather "the scholar" and his work for the Rebbe, his father and his work rescuing ladover jews and establishing yeshivas in europe, his mother and her own anguish over the unfinished work of her brother and determination to complete it. this timeline, which stretches over several generations, stirs up questions about completing tasks, atoning for the past, about journeying and sacrifice and choosing life. this leads him to create a pivotal work, one which brings the question of "the morality of a work's content" versus "the aesthetics of the work" to a head. and that question is an important question. the question gets at the heart of the task of the artist: to create something in which the content and the form are perfectly balanced. to achieve wholeness.

"i had brought something incomplete into the world. now i felt its incompleteness. "can you understand what it means for something to be incomplete?" my mother had once asked me. i understood, i understood." (p. 312 top). i believe the question of [in]completeness is a core issue for the artist, as it is for asher. it is not only about the integrity of the work, it is also about the integrity of the artist. one of the ideas i am very interested in is the idea of Beauty in art. Beauty is more than simply some subjective aesthetic quality. it encompasses ideas of wholeness and completeness, and therefore has a moral element to it. Beauty and Truth are not that unrelated. they are like two sides of the same coin. ultimately, art's role - for asher at least - is to declare Truth or to express how one feels about things. there is a necessity for the artist to be Truth-full in what they are exploring, declaring, presenting and how they go about that. there must be an integrity in what they are working on. they must be convinced of the work, its importance, its usefulness, its ability to make difference in the world.

this reflects the belief, found throughout the book, in the power of creativity to shape the universe. this creativity isn't necessarily associated only with the arts, but can be expressed in any arena of life. even so, made in the image of G-d (we carry the imago dei, after all), we are inherently creative beings. all the characters - from the Master of the Universe/ Ribbono Shel Olom through asher and aryeh and rivkeh lev, to the rebbe and jacob kahn, to the numerous immigrants and refugees in the novel - exhibit creativity and the ability to adapt and respond to ever-changing conditions. this is an essential part of the artistic process - the ability to respond to and embrace change, and to use it to create something new. in fact, it is inherently redemptive in tone. so what will you do with your creativity? what will you create in the world? to what end?