13 November 2011

The End of Art

We are experiencing “The End of Art” as the visual perception of surface gives way to the conceptual grasp of inner significance. In Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, Columbia University philosophy professor Arthur Danto discusses how Andy Warhol’s 1964 exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York marks the end of art. In the art gallery, Warhol stacked boxes on which he had screen-printed the Brillo logo. They looked identical to the cartons of Brillo soap pads that we see in supermarket aisles. We could no longer see the difference between Brillo Boxes (the work of art) and Brillo boxes (the mere real things). What Warhol taught was that there is no way of telling the difference by merely looking. The history of Western art as a progressive historical narrative of one art style superseding a previous style came to an end.

I believe that what we are witnessing is not the end of art, but the end of art derived from a Hellenistic structure of consciousness. The contemporary redefinition of art is emerging from a Hebraic biblical consciousness as expressed through the oral Torah. Danto’s radical new proposal that concept and context rather than visual appearance gives meaning to images and objects was seriously discussed centuries ago by rabbis dealing with idolatry and Greek aesthetics. In the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah (Strange Worship), rabbis discuss whether found fragments of an image such as the hand or foot of a statue that was worshipped are prohibited or permitted. If the idol fell down and broke, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish reasoned, then the hand or foot are permitted because the owner of the idol annuls it by saying, “If it could not save itself, so how could it save me?” Samuel explained that if they were mounted on a pedestal they were still valued as idols. Therefore, the exact same hand or foot would be prohibited.

The Greek Proclos, son of a philosopher, put a question to Rabbi Gamliel who was bathing in a pool in front a large statute of Aphrodite. “If your Torah forbids idolatry, why are you bathing in the Bath of Aphrodite?” The rabbi answered, “I did not come into her domain, she came into mine.” If the statue of Aphrodite was erected and then a pool was made to honor her, it would be forbidden for a Jew to bathe there. However, if the pool was made first and the statue was placed there as an adornment, then it is permitted. Concept and context determine meaning in the case of the idol fragments and the statute of Aphrodite, like Brillo boxes in an art gallery rather than in a supermarket and a panel of plywood hanging in a museum rather than stacked in a lumberyard. The visual sense alone cannot discern between art and non-art today or between idol and mere decoration yesterday.

Excerpt from the chapter "Semiotic Perspectives: Redefining Art in a Postdigital Age" in The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness.

09 November 2011

Abraham's Choice: Paradise or Barbeque

I was seated at a large oak table in the printroom of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a quiet ritual, one Rembrandt at a time was placed on a delicate easel in front of me as the tissue paper protecting the picture was slowly removed. As his etching Abraham Entertaining the Angels was uncovered, I saw that only two of the angels had wings. The figure facing Abraham had no wings. Perhaps Rembrandt wanted to show that although they looked like men to Abraham, they were really angels in disguise.

The Torah (Genesis 18:1-7) relates how three angels disguised as men appeared to Abraham while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. When he looked up and saw three people a short distance from him, he ran to greet them and invited them to eat with him. He rushed to his wife, Sarah, and asked her to bake cakes for their guests.  Then Abraham ran to the cattle to choose a tender, choice calf. The midrash questions why Abraham ran after the calf.  The calf ran away from him into a cave. When inside, he discovered that he had entered the burial place of Adam and Eve. He saw intense light emanating from an opening at the end of the cave. He was drawn to the light. As he approached, he saw the Garden of Eden through the opening. This deeply spiritual person, the partiarch Abraham, found himself standing at the entrance to Paradise. About to cross ove the threshold into the pristine garden, he remembered that his wife and three guests were waiting for lunch back at the tent. What should he do?  Should he trade Paradise for a barbeque?  The Torah tells us that he chose to return to the tent and join his wife in making lunch for the three stangers.  They sat together in the shade of a tree and enjoyed the barbeque.  We learn from this legend that we ourselves create heaven or hell in our relationships with our spouses, children, friends, neighbors and strangers. Visions of Paradise far off at the end of a cave or in some heavily realm above are mere mirages or fraudulent lies. Abraham knew that he and Sarah had the power to create heaven together in their tent.

Excerpt on the Vayera Torah portion from The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, pages 159-160.

See Miram working together with Mel in their kitchen to create Eden preparing their Shabbat meal for their children, grandchildren, and great-grandson.  Link to the Torah Tweets blogart project at  http://torahtweets.blogspot.com/2010/10/vayera.html