Friday, October 1, 2010

the conclusion of asher lev, pt. 2

i will end my posts about my name is asher lev by discussing something about its beginning. the novel begins thusly:
My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion.

I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all--in the way that I am painting. So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two-thousand years.

Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty, I confess that my accusers are not altogether wrong: I am indeed, in some way, all of those things.

The fact is that gossip, rumors, mythmaking and news stories are not appropriate vehicles for the communication of nuances of truth, those subtle tonalities that are often the truly crucial elements in a casual chain.So it is time for the defense, for a long session in demythology. But I will not apologize. It is absurd to apologize for a mystery.
(p. 9)
it is a curious thing to start a novel by explaining that the story is not the story -- that this story about art is not about surfaces, but about what lies beneath, and that that story is more often a mystery. and that is really what art does. it presents you with a surface, but that surface has depth. or, at least, it should. art is an onion, or a cake (one of my favourite art metaphors). it has layers. you absorb it. it becomes part of you.

this introduction is also instructive in being careful about reading too much of the artist into the work. of course, the artist's experiences, culture, identity all play into the kind of work they make, but - while these things may inform the work's creation - they do not necessarily limit the work to those contexts and interpretations. possible readings will shift depending on where and how we encounter the work. hopefully, the work also speaks to larger ideas about art, ideas, human experience.

so let's look at the image potok created of Brooklyn Crucifixion, lev's infamous painting:

the painting could offend people on numerous levels: as a cubist work, subbing its nose at mimesis and realism; as an expressionist work, with its twisting of space and modernist language; and the crucified figure (the artist?) could offend both jew (it depicts a gentile event) and christian (it depicts someone other than jesus). on the other hand, it is a painting about those visual traditions - a rupturing of space and time, reflective of the modern human condition; it is a painting about human suffering, both individual and tribal; it is about the public's potential to attack the artist/ writer for the content and/or delivery of the work.

the question always is: can we move beyond those [initial] surface elements and create a composite of possible meanings? can we move beyond that first reaction, and tune into the wealth of responses available to us as we enter into the work's story, including both the imagery, style, scale and context (material and conceptual) as well as the artist's personal experiences and how they may inform its production and content (or not)? can we take the time to read the story rather than trying to condense (and therefore limit) the work to a sentence?