25 February 2007
20 February 2007
The Future of Art in a Digital Age:
From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consiousness
By Mel Alexenberg, Intellect Books, UK, 2006
Mel Alexenberg is Professor of Art and Jewish Thought and Head of the Creative Arts Program at Emunah College in Jersalem. He has written an extraordinary book which offers a prophetic vision of art in a digital future. Expanding upon the emerging artistic prospects made possible by technology, it explores new directions in art that have arisen between the planes of science, technological development, and cultural expression.
Focusing upon the epochal shift from pre- to post-modernism, the author examines the interrelations between digital age art and Jewish consciousness. The contours of art in a postmodern era shape the framework of this book. Using both analytic and alternative Jewish methodologies, the author offers a diverse and exciting range of theories regarding the expansion and redefinition of art in a digital dimension. The author’s personal artwork – a vibrant fusion of the mystical and technological – is included in the book to exemplify and complement the theoretical basis of the study. His is a revolutionary investigation into the aesthetic form that imaginatively envisages the vast potential of art in a cyber future.
Excerpt from The Future of Art in a Digital Age
The ingathering of the Jewish people into their ancestral homeland of Israel at the time that many other peoples are being dispersed into new host countries would seem to be a countertrend to the powerful forces of globalization. However, the rebirth of the Jewish State and the ingathering of the exiles plant roots that provide the sure footing required to play the fast-moving globalization game. A half-century after its rebirth, Israel has become as a major player in the global world of hi tech. Jewish history is the prototype for the creative tension and energetic interplay between subjugation and freedom, between local action and global consciousness, between narrow unidirectional thought and open-ended systems thought, and between being rooted in one’s own culture and exploring others. This tension and interplay can become the stimulus and raw material for forging new directions for art in our era of globalization.
19 February 2007
International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology
From Book Review by Rob Herle, Australia
The Future of Art in a Digital Age
From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness
by Mel Alexenberg, Intellect, Bristol, UK, 2006
This book is as much about religion, specifically Judaism, and spirituality as it is about art, and in a covert way, it is also highly political. Like the Torah itself that Alexenberg refers to regularly, the book is complex. He writes in a lively, engaging style, and whilst the book is heavily biased, I found it informative, optimistic, and spiritually refreshing.To Alexenberg’s credit, his bias is fully and proudly declared. He is a practicing and devout Jew, and this, of course, tempers his entire philosophical outlook.
He finds many profound similarities between Hebraic consciousness and postmodern art, which are amazingly insightful and clearly explained. The postmodern art that he chooses to discuss is the positive, optimistic minority. Much of postmodern art engages the viewer in a hermeneutic vicious circle of depression, hopelessness, and nihilism. If you doubt this, see The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and Depression (reviewed Leonardo Reviews, June 2006).
As the subtitle, From Hellenistic To Hebraic Consciousness, suggests the book covers a lot of history, specifically religious and art history. Alexenberg looks at the "End of Art" concept in which he argues that we are not witnessing 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 consciousness as expressed through the Oral Torah" (p. 33). Shame nobody told the rest of the non-Jewish world!
It is interesting to note Alexenberg’s acute awareness of the Islamic-Arabic culture, so much so that one of his own major artworks deals with the Middle East "situation" specifically. Cyberangels: Aesthetic Peace Plan for the Middle East is detailed in Leonardo (p. 185) vol. 39, no. 3, 2006 and also in this book (p. 54-57), together with many other of Alexenberg’s artworks. This work compares Israel, a tiny land within the huge Arab world, with the "fault" deliberately woven into traditional Muslim kilims. Israel needs to exist and be respected in accordance with the Islamic concept that only Allah is perfect. This artwork is brilliantly conceived, the concept of helping achieve Middle East peace through a visual artwork, laden with deep and complex philosophical and political information, is surely unique and perhaps the only possible way this may be achieved.
The book has a substantial Introduction together with an excellent Index and four well annotated chapters with the following titles:
Semiotic Perspectives – Redefining Art in a Digital Age,
Morphological Perspectives – Space-Time Structures of Visual Culture,
Kabbalistic Perspectives – Creative Process in Art and Science,
Halakhic Perspectives – Creating a Beautiful Life.
This book as the back cover states is, "A revolutionary investigation into the aesthetic form that imaginatively envisages the vast potential of art in a cyber future." It is worth mentioning that the book is not specifically about digital art but art generally in our digital age. Let’s hope that such a future embodies spiritual, not necessarily religious values, which will enable us to realise our full potential. Spiritual is not used here as synonymous with religion. The wisdom expressed throughout The Future of Art in A Digital Age will help in its own small way to help us realise this potential.
10 February 2007
February 2, 2007
Book Review by Menachem Wecker
The Future of Art in a Digital Age:
From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness
by Mel Alexenberg
As a wakeup call to “an indifferent world” and “Jews with their heads in the sand,” Mel Alexenberg designed a Holocaust memorial to honor the 6 million Jews in Israel “incinerated by an Iranian nuclear bomb that is Iran’s prelude to global conquest in the service of a mad ideology.”
Although the word “memorial,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, derives from the Latin memoria (“memory”), Alexenberg has no qualms about memorializing events that have yet to occur. He certainly won’t be spitting three times, muttering “ken ayin hara” or throwing salt. “To hell with an evil eye,” he told the Forward in an e-mail. “It is evil to sit back and do nothing.”
Alexenberg’s project, titled “Future Holocaust Memorials,” has its own blog, http://futureholocaustmemorials.blogspot.com/, and is just one of several new-media Jewish art projects that Alexenberg has launched. He has tied prayer shawl strings to the four “corners” of America (Washington, San Diego, Maine and Florida), faxed “cyberangles” (based on Rembrandt’s work) across the globe, built an eruv (ritual border) around the city of Sodom and used a kabbalistic system that matches colors with Hebrew letters to map out the Bible in lights. These pieces and more are collected in Alexenberg’s new book, “The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness.”
Alexenberg’s interest in digital art stems from his belief that art and science are “integrally one in the human psyche,” which “only need to be merged in postmodernism because they were artificially torn apart.” Alexenberg says that when he was a child, he used to conduct “scientific and artistic activities” with salamanders in the Catskills, “without a clue that they were considered different areas of human endeavor.” That childish playfulness and obliviousness to the boundaries of disciplines have apparently stuck with the artist, who refers to the Talmud’s “hypertext Internet-like design… that demands that it be studied in multiple ways unlike the one-way linear reading of other books.”
Alexenberg would seem to be an unlikely herald of Talmud-as-hypertext. The bearded artist, who wears a black hat and Hasidic garb in many of his promotional images, is the founding dean of the art school at Netanya Academic College in Israel. He was chairman of fine arts at the New York-based Pratt Institute, and a professor of art at Columbia University and at Bar-Ilan University. He also served as a research fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies and as dean of visual arts at Miami’s New World School of the Arts before moving to Petah Tikvah, where he now lives.
His book’s premise centers on what Alexenberg calls a paradigm shift between Hellenistic and Hebraic consciousness. Alexenberg cites Norwegian theologian Thorleif Boman, whose book “Hebrew Thought Compared With Greek” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2002) defines Hellenism as a “static, peaceful, moderate, harmonious” art that spans from the Renaissance to modernism, whereas Hebraic thinking is “dynamic, vigorous, passionate, explosive,” or new-media art.
A well-versed student of art history, Alexenberg rallies names no less significant than Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry to prove his point. He calls Wright “the son of a Unitarian minister,” who “internalized the biblical message of freeing humanity from enslavement in closed spaces and expressed his freedom in his architectural design.” Gehry, meanwhile, who was born Frank Goldberg, used to play with the carp swimming in his grandmothers’ bathtub. In Alexenberg’s conception, “The vigorous body motions of swimming fish seen from above gave Gehry his vocabulary for the dynamic shape of his museum,” the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.
If Jacques Derrida had not preceded him, Alexenberg would be the Jewish Marshall McLuhan. He talks about the “endless flow” of the spiral Torah scroll “in contrast with the same content trapped between the covers in a codex book form.” He sees the Internet as a tool for translation and simultaneous unification and diversity that reverses the transgression of the Tower of Babel. Like McLuhan, Alexenberg is vulnerable to criticism for the breadth of his seemingly all-inclusive message that could prove either brilliance or utter nonsense.
But Alexenberg stresses that he is not a philosophy professor who never realizes his theories in the real world: “As an artist, I am always seeking new ways to realize theory/concept in space and time.” He even tries to use his art in areas where politics is failing. His exhibit Cyberangels: Aesthetic Peace Plan for the Middle East, which was shown in Prague, proposes an aesthetic solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict by highlighting an aspect of Islamic art that incorporates both geometric patterns and disrupting counter-patterns to show that “human creation is less than perfect.” Israel, then, can represent that counter-pattern of iconoclasm that leads the Islamic world to recognize “that they need Israel to realize their Islamic religious values.”
In this project, Alexenberg is most like McLuhan, who told Playboy in 1969 that the artist, and not the scientist, should be called upon to perceive and foresee new trends, because “inherent in the artist’s creative inspiration is the process of subliminally sniffing out environmental change.” Perhaps he will not have the opportunity to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and hopefully he will not be called upon to truly memorialize Israel, but Alexenberg’s art and scholarship represent some of the most innovative work being made in both the Jewish and non-Jewish art world.
Menachem Wecker is a painter and editor based in Washington, D.C. He recently began blogging about religion and the arts at http://iconia.canonist.com/.
Iconia: Wherever Faith Meets Art
Iconia is a blog about religion and art by Menachem Wecker that is part of the Canonist network of religion blogs.
Interview: Mel Alexenberg
My review of Mel Alexenberg’s new book, The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness is in this week’s Forward, titled “The Jewish McLuhan.”
I talk about his installations which do everything from tying tzitzit strings to the corners of the United States to sending “Cyber-angels” (derived from Rembrandt) across the world by fax. And perhaps most provocatively, his Holocaust memorial honoring the 6 million Jews in Israel “incinerated by an Iranian nuclear bomb that is Iran’s prelude to global conquest in the service of a mad ideology.”
Here’s the email interview I conducted with Alexenberg, pictured (wearing a hat with the ambassadors of Israel and the U.S. at the opening of his exhibit, Cyberangels: Aesthetic Peace Plan for the Middle East, at the Jewish Museum in Prague):
MW: I find your ability to not only map the Torah out over postmodern/deconstruction theory but also to create numerous artworks that attend to those discoveries quite fascinating. I wonder, though, is there any limit in your mind to cooperation between Jewish texts/theology and technology? Is there ever a danger of creating towers of Babel?
MA: I discuss the greatest transgression in building the Tower of Babel as defying the Divine will to revere and applaud the differences between peoples (pages 150-151). With rapidly developing translation programs on the Internet, people can retain their different languages and cultures while communicating to each other freely. Internet translation programs that promise to be perfected in the next decade provide unprecedented opportunities to be both unified and different simultaneously.
MW: Along similar lines, it strikes me that close inspection of any text, not only the Torah, would yield striking aspects that are relevant to postmodernism and the digital age. Do you agree with that? If so, what is it about Judaism that makes the postmodern investigation particularly fruit worthy?
MA: On pages 21-22, I discuss McLuhan’s important concept that the medium is an integral part of the message in relation to the hypertext Internet-like design of the Talmud that demands that it be studied in multiple ways unlike the one-way linear reading of other books. The text of the Talmud itself repeats the mantra that there are 70 facets to the Torah (p. 14). It invites us to read between the lines. See the section “From Deconstruction to Reconstruction” (pages 84-88). On pages 41-42, 89, I explore the endless flow of the spiral Torah scroll in contrast with the same content trapped between the covers in a codex book form. The medium is so central that the same content is not read from a rectangular book if the Torah is not available in a scroll form.
MW: You make a big deal out of the paradigm shift from Hellenism to Hebraic perspectives, but it seems you are far more interested in the Hebraic space once you get there than in the evolution. Are there not many aspects of Hellenistic thought that also be compared with new media developments?
MA: The book is about the future of art which is confluent with the Hebraic structure of consciousness not past paradigms. To use Boman’s words [from his book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek]: Hellenism = static, peaceful, moderate, harmonious = art from Renaissance to modernism. Hebraic thinking = dynamic, vigorous, passionate, explosive = new media art (see p. 9 in my book).
MW: You have done a lot of art projects that develop upon your writings. Do you see the theory/concept as the most important part? The artwork? Do you sometimes feel like you are rushing to finish things so as to adopt new projects?
MA: Theory/concept is vital in my work both as an artist and professor of art and Jewish thought. However, I am not a philosophy professor who does not have to realize his theories in the real world. As an artist, I am always seeking new ways to realize theory/concept in space and time. I never completely finish art projects that are part of a continuous dialogue between concept and realization. My art projects overlap each other and re-emerge in an ongoing process of creative discovery.
MW: Your memorial to 6 million Israelis who could be killed by Iran is intriguing. Is there fear of casting an evil eye? What exactly is the memorial you want to make? Are there plans to develop it?
MA: The website www.futureholocaustmemorials.org is a prioric and dialogic work of Internet art in itself (see chapter on semiotics in my book and explanation in text of website itself). I am also exploring creating a memorial artwork using digital animation technologies in large-scale nighttime projections covering the exterior surface of buildings worldwide. What I’m doing is using my abilities as a new media artist to issue a wake up call to an indifferent world and to Jews with their heads in the sand and warn of a horrific danger facing Israel and all the free world. To hell with an evil eye. It is evil to sit back and do nothing.
MW: I like your art models designed to respond to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to find common ground. Do you think it is realistic that art can help people resolve their political differences? Do you have any experiences that lead you to believe that art can make that difference?
MA: Why not try art when politics is failing? In my Prague exhibition proposing an aesthetic peace plan for the Middle East drawing on Islamic art and thought, I opened a constructive dialog with Islamic leaders. (pages 54-57). My Legacy Throne artwork exemplifies using art together people (Hispanic, African-American, Jewish) of different cultural values in a common enterprise (pages 26-30). Perhaps similar collaborative Jewish-Arab artworks could ease tensions.
MW: Finally, your work relies heavily upon kabbalah and other mysticism. Do you think these sorts of theories are within the experience of real Jews living in the world today? Is your investigation more interested in the theology or in how people have and do interpret that theology in their own lives? I imagine many Jews would find your work either too esoteric in its attention to Judaism or new media. Have you heard feedback in this regard?
MA: There is worldwide popularization of kabbalah among both Jews and non-Jews while people in the developed world have no choice but to become computer savvy and attend to new media. I make it clear in Chapter 3 that kabbalah is a down-to-earth mysticism to encounter everyday life unlike other mystical traditions that draw away from the mundane material world.
Response to “Interview: Mel Alexenberg”
Ariel Beery, editor and publisher of Blogs of Zion and the magazine PresenTense, says:
Mel Alexenberg is one of the most amazing, insightful and inspiring human beings I have ever had the pleasure to meet and learn from. Kol HaKavod on bringing his message to the world.
Blogs of Zion
Alexenberg: A Prophet in our Midst
Alexenberg is such a prophet. As Menachem Wecker writes both on his blog and in a review of Alexenberg’s mindshattering book, The Future of Art in the Digital Age, in the Forward. Alexenberg isn’t just a philosopher or an intellectual, he is a doer, a creator, a model for new models of Jewish thinking that contain within them the wisdom of our civilization adapted for this new age of Information Technology.
I have been blessed with a number of occasions to learn from Alexenberg throughout the years–in fact, as the father of a good friend of mine in Israel, he is in many ways a person who made me who I am today. By revealing patterns in the world, pointing out the workings of those systems that surround us at present, and by expanding my horizons to Judaism as a spiritual practice that is in fact aspiritual–that is, as real as the kreplach one may eat–Alexenberg has been known to instill in many a love for the Jewish wisdom ensconced in the Jewish People that some kiruv organizations, both secular and orthodox, can only dream of.
Alexenberg’s latest project is a living memorial to the six million Ahmadinejad of Iran aspires to murder through the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Let us hope that Alexenberg’s prophecy leads the West to play the role of Nineveh–and may we be blessed with learning more from this prophet of our times.