Learning To See: The Relevance of Cultural Studies, and the Jewish Educational Context

Naftali D. Goldberg

Knowledge, from a Jewish theological point of view, may be deemed a neutral entity, inasmuch as it may be used for positive or negative ends. Consequently, it may remain ‘irrelevant’ to the weltanschauung of the religious Jew. The study of a spectacular trompe l’oeil effect of a detail in a Vermeer painting, or the minutely rendered individual hairs of a dog in the corner of a Van Eyck portrait, may impress the viewer as he strolls lazily down the hall of an art gallery; but is such study of any significance to our lives as religious Jews? This project seeks to explore whether or not the study of art and its cultural contexts, is meaningful, irrelevant, or harmful, within the framework of the Jewish educational enterprise. It has been argued that art, drama, and literature, are fundamentally ‘foreign’ to the outlook of the religious Jew, particularly in post-Temple times. Art presents a danger to the orthodox Jew, by freeing his creative impulse to venture unleashed, in all directions. Renaissance art, is the ‘offspring of paganism’; idolatrous and erotic imagery from the primary corpus of Western European art, from the medieval period to the modern era. This pessimistic approach is in stark contrast to that of R. Kook’s words relating to Shir HaShirim, who while he may have agreed with aspects of this argument, was nonetheless in favour of encouraging artistic production. Whereas he concurs that certain aspects of the human psyche should be repressed and covered up, and certainly not celebrated through art, he nonetheless indicates that every ‘positive’ human impulse is enriched by artistic expression. Society benefits by being able to share the artistic creations of painters, writers, and poets, who contribute to the elevation of the human spirit.

In English Renaissance thought, it was argued that appreciation of human artistic creation enriches appreciation of the Ultimate Maker of man. In a seminal essay on Torah and General culture, Rav Aharon Lichtenstien, building on Sir Phillip Sydney’s Apology for Poesie, writes:

Man is a ruach memalelah, a “speaking spirit”; i.e. more generally […] the creator of symbols – verbal, cognitive, imaginative.

Hence, far from directing attention from the contemplation of God’s majestic cosmos, the study of great literature focuses upon a manifestation, albeit indirect, of his wondrous creation at its apex. In one sense, to be sure, human artefacts may be regarded as competing with divine handiwork. Yet in another they reveal the spiritual potential which God’s creative will had implanted in man. If the heavens bespeak the glory of their Maker, the imaginative powers of man all the more so. (1997, 245)

Elsewhere in the same essay the author asks: ‘Can anyone doubt that appreciation of God’s flora is enhanced by Wordsworth’s description of “a crowd/ a host of golden daffodils;/ Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/ Fluttering and dancing in the breeze”? (244). If so for works of literature, why not too for works of art? Man is after all a creator of visual as well as verbal symbols; and insofar as they suggest a ‘language’ of underlying meaning, could they not also be a fulfilment of man’s identity as ruach memelelah.

From the works of both Maimonides, writing in the c12, and R. Profiat Duran, in the late c14-c15, it is evident that aesthetics may have a relevant role to play in the life of the Orthodox Jew. According to these sources, the mere delight of the eye’s untutored gaze upon things of beauty, the sensual enjoyment of the object d’art, is both a legitimate and invigorating experience.

However, the production of ‘things of beauty’, has for a long time ceased to be the predominant concern of artists, if, indeed it ever was. Much art now, and even in the past, seeks to disturb, to unsettle our stagnant modes of viewing our world; to defamiliarize, to subvert, to transgress cultural ‘norms’ and cherished notions. This is both a cause of grave concern, and at the same time, a matter of profound relevance, for Jewish education. We may decide that the dangers of art outweigh its benefits, and that it is best shunned and designated as ‘taboo’; or we may decide that such a way of looking at the world may actually enrich the outlook of the Orthodox Jew. In any event, it seems folly simply to ignore the issue. We live in societies which devote large sums of money to the financing of artistic projects; to building ‘temples’ of culture, fashioned architecturally in the style of Greek and Roman temples, to house the production of artists, the icons of modern culture. These objects are protected, celebrated, venerated, discussed, exchange hands for huge sums of money, are reproduced countless times, and function in many different ways within our culture. To ignore these facts, is to build a cage around our intellects. This may, ultimately be a legitimate reaction, but only if it is a considered one.

The primary interest of this essay however, is, in a sense, the opposite of the positive attitudes expressed in the traditional sources outlined above. Can humanity not be enriched by a different sort of art; art that seeks to deconstruct society, and expose the flimsy underpinnings of its systems and values. Art as a visual form of social criticism, a study of human degeneracy. Does this not have profound relevance to our lives as analytical beings? Art always has been a mirror for our cultural values, sometimes despite itself, as Gender and Cultural studies, Marxist and Feminist Criticism, and Post-Colonial theory have attempted to demonstrate. Certain tendencies in modern art, seem to be doing the same thing, only using the art itself as the medium to convey the message, to hold up a looking glass to the viewer, and ask them what they see.

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