ARTISTS OF THE SOUL

All of us experience moments of poetry.

They may come from events in our personal lives - the reuniting of long-lost family, a birth, a death. Or these moments of inspiration may spring from this world of teeming splendor, from our sense of joy and wonder at the creation.

Some of us, however, are not content to leave those moments of inspiration in the realm of the intangible. We feel the need to give them a physical existence, to "mortalize" them in words, in song, in paint, or as a photograph.

And once we have made this commitment to clothe our inspiration with earthly garb, there comes the difficult and frustrating process of wrestling with stubborn charcoal and canvas, obdurate gouache, obstinate film and chemicals, to say nothing of the intractable depths of Photoshop®. And for the photographer, apart from these basic material constrictions, there is another level of constraint to deal with. As Edward Steichen said, "Every other artist begins with a blank canvas, a piece of paper... The photographer begins with the finished product." He must coax from this world a spirit that is reluctant to epitomize for his lens. The photographeras- artist tries to make visible the invisible - "to make seen what without you might never have been seen," as Robert Bresson put it.

Art is inspiration wrestling with constriction, the constriction of the physical doing battle with the idea. For in whichever medium the artist chooses to clothe his muse, he must struggle with the characteristics and the limitations of that medium. After all, he is trying to coax that which is beyond the physical to reside within the physical. It's no wonder then that good art is rare. However, without this struggle of vision-constricted-through-media, there is no art; the mind can dance, but there is no dancing partner. Art exists as a function of constriction, not in spite of it. That dance of the mind and spirit with paper and paint, that exquisite tension between the material and the ephemeral, is where art lives and breathes. Just as a flute only produces music by the constriction of breath through a metal pipe, and without that constriction, that limitation, there is no music, so all the plastic arts rely on the celebration of limits.

And, ironically, the more constricting the medium, the more poetic the product. To this day, black-and-white photographs, limited to different shades of gray, are esteemed as "more artistic" than less limited color photographs. And photographs themselves are considered less artistically worthy than painting, because they are closer to reality and less restricted by the medium.


"In the image of God, He created him [man]" (Bereishit 1:27). This verse in the Torah is often misunderstood as meaning that Judaism believes in an anthropomorphic God; that God has arms, feet, a head, and a back. Obviously this cannot be a correct understanding. God is a nonphysical, nonspiritual Entity of whose essence we can ultimately know nothing. However, whatever ends up in this world as a hand is but the lowest incarnation of something that starts off at the highest level as an aspect of God's interface with His creation. Thus, to the extent that it is possible, God gives us the ability to know Him from knowing ourselves. As it says in the book of Iyov (19:26), "From my flesh, I will see God." On one level this means that by reflecting on the miraculous nature of the body, the most complex and brilliant feat of engineering in the world, a person can sense the Hand of a Creator. On another level, though, the fact that God created us in His image means that by understanding ourselves - we can understand something about God.

Thus man's ability to create - the ability to take the material world and make it speak the language of emotion, of inspiration - must be the most distant reflection of some characteristic of God. The fact that art exists must reveal some aspect of the Divine.

Jewish mystical sources teach that when God created the universe, He "constricted Himself " to allow the appearance of something other than Himself. This concept is called tzimtzum - literally, "constriction." (Needless to say, a true understanding of this concept is far beyond our grasp.)

In other words, this world and everything in it is God's Work of Art.

When an artist of flesh and blood paints a picture on a wall, he cannot infuse his creation with a living spirit, with a soul, innards, and intestines. An earthly artist can only create a static world. Show me an artist whose paintings can multiply and proliferate or a playwright whose characters have free choice to make decisions that will influence the course of the play! (Luigi Pirandello in "Six Characters in Search of an Author" toyed with this idea. However, in reality we are still watching Six Actors in Search of a Job.)

The ultimate Artist is God. God's artworks move and breathe. His creations are not only alive, but they generate life.

The spiritual masters understood the deeper meaning of the phrase "Ein Tzur k'Elokeinu - There is no Rock like our God" (Shmuel I 2:2) to be "Ein Tzayar k'Elokeinu - There is no Artist like God" (Berachot 10a). Interestingly, the word for "artist" in Hebrew, tzayar, is related to the word tzar, meaning "narrow" or "constricted."


The Talmud says that "if you never saw the Second Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), you never saw a beautiful building in your life" (Bava Batra 4a). The Beit HaMikdash was called the "eye of the world." The eye is a physical organ, but it receives something that is about as nonphysical as you can get: the eye is the gateway to the nonphysical existence called light. The Beit HaMikdash was called the eye of the world because it was the portal for the Light. The Beit HaMikdash was the most beautiful building not because of its dimensions and proportions or its finishes, but because it represented the tzimtzum of God in this world.

"What house could you build me and what place could be My resting place?" (Yeshayahu 66:1).


Chanuka is the festival that contrasts the artists of the body with the artists of the soul. If the Greeks "wrote the book" on the art of the physical, the Jews are still learning the Book of the Soul.

The Greek view of Judaism goes like this: "How restrictive! You can't eat scampi. You have to pray at certain prescribed times. You must eat at certain times and fast at others. You can't gossip. You can't marry whoever you want. You can't even pick up a telephone on Saturday." (Thank God!)

The life of a Jew is brimful of constrictions and restrictions. It is these very restrictions, however, that allow our souls to sing. God put into this world a mystical song. It is called the Torah. The Torah is the score, the notes and semibreves of existence. The Torah allows us to turn this world into art. The mitzvot are the raw material of the artist of the soul. They restrict us - but they are the paint and canvas that give us the power to make the physical world speak in the language of the spirit. They are the media through which we create the ultimate art that can exist, because they allow us to form a partnership with the Ultimate Artist in His ultimate artwork.

They are the tools of the artist of the soul.


THE VUEW FROM LIFTA
why does the light playing
on this patch of grass
touch my heart?
what makes it
the essential patch of grass,
the patch of grass?
why do I need to make a photograph of it?
or the clouds.
what are the unspoken messages
of those great candyfloss giants
tiptoeing across the night sky?
what of the dust rising
from the distantmost turn of the road
on its way
to the tomb of Samuel the Prophet?






More articles available at Ohr Somayach's website.