09 July 2017

Beauty is a Bit of a Bore

Leslie Lawrence to Mel Alexenberg, Facebook, 5 July 2017
Hi Mel, I wanted to tell you that your work, which I learned about from Rabbi Susan Silverman, a former student of mine, has meant a lot to me. I discuss it in "Wonderlust," an essay published in my recent collection The Death of Fred Astaire: And Other Essays from A Life Outside the Lines.

Rooms to Dwell In

From the chapter “Wonderlust: Excursions through an Aesthetic Education” in The Death of Fred Astaire: Essays for a Life Outside the Lines by Leslie Lawrence (Excelsior Books, SUNY Press, 2016).


Beauty is a bit of a bore.  —William Somerset Maugham

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Kenneth Maue, not only because he taught me so much about teaching and living and making art, and about how the lines between these can blur, but also because, on the recommendation of a student, I’ve been reading Mel Alexenberg who reminds me of just how ahead of his time Maue was.

A cyber and public artist, as well as an art theorist, Alexenberg, author of The Future of Art in the Digital Age, gives me new lenses through which to view my own obsessions and forays. Drawing on the work of the theologian Thorleif Boman, Alexenberg contrasts the Greeks’ adoration of unified and stable “space-centered” art forms with the Hebrews’ preference for multi-faceted, dynamic “time-centered” forms. The Greeks, he believes, view the spiritual as existing “above the mundane,” whereas the Hebrews aim to “bring the spiritual down into our everyday lives.” Furthermore, Alexenberg contends that in our post-modern digital age we are going through a paradigm shift from Hellenic to Hebraic consciousness, a shift Maue foresaw in the ’seventies. “We are going through a profound change in our orientation within the world,” wrote Maue in Water in the Lake, “from a consciousness organized around structure to a consciousness organized around process.”

(You don’t have to be Jewish to have a Hebraic consciousness.)

“The story of the Jewish people,” Alexenberg reminds us, “begins with movement . . . with ‘lekh lekhah,’ a journey away from the safely familiar towards adventuresome freedom.” A psychological as well as a physical expedition, this trek takes us from a place of “narrow-minded thinking to a place where [we] can freely see.” Alexenberg continues: “The Hebrew word for ‘God,’ YHVH, is a verb not a noun, an action word not a thing.” He translates it as “Was-Is-Will-Be or Will Bring into Being.”

This leads Alexenberg (again channeling Boman) to another of his distinctions between the Greeks and Hebrews. The former, he claims, with their commitment to mimesis, charge their artists with making beautiful, harmonious replications of God’s glorious creations. The latter, with their emphasis on movement, want their artists—all of us, really—to replicate God’s work as creator and become “co-creators.” So maybe it’s not so farfetched to think He? She? needs my tinkering to be made manifest.

What’s more: Alexenberg describes Hebraic aesthetics as being “primarily about . . . opportunities for dynamic dialogue, expansive integral thought, and interactive experience”—precisely the same kind of opportunities Maue’s pre-digital age pieces provide.

Take “Non-Sequiturs,” a Maue piece I performed more than thirty years ago involving actual dialogue, albeit in an unusual form.
A group of players holds one-to-one dialogues in which each remark follows the preceding one in no perceivable way . . . Let the sentences be of as wide a nature as you can invent in terms of content, tone, and manner of expression.
“It’s sunny today,” your partner begins.
“Bears like blueberries,” you say, immediately realizing your tone (flat), your manner of expression (declarative), even your number of words is similar to your partner’s; furthermore, in content, there’s a discernible link—sunny days leading to bountiful blueberry crops and happy bears. So now you try harder, reaching for sentences from galaxies different from your partner’s. But alas, you are also becoming increasingly adept at finding links between these seeming non-sequiturs, so much so that you start to feel as if every thing is connected—every uttered fact, idea, or sentiment, yes; but also every body—animal, vegetable, or mineral.
I still remember one line from the dialogue I engaged in all those years ago: “When I was five my mother died and that same year my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.” These words, uttered without inflection by my partner, followed some vapid, factual statement I’d made. Though the rules of the game did not guarantee that our statements be true, I felt sure that my partner’s was, and I yearned for some permissible way to convey my sympathy. I don’t remember what non-sequitur I came up with, only the feeling that I’d succeeded as well, or better, than I would have with a more conventional response—if only because the prohibitions forced me to wait longer and think harder before speaking. I remember the feeling of closeness the dialogue engendered and I wondered if this was Maue intended.
What did Maue intend—with this piece and others? One piece asks you to say aloud the name of every person you ever met. Another tells you to put a book in your freezer and leave it there. Another to simply “vocalize” by dredging forth nonhuman or rather pre-linguistic, a-musical utterances, largely grotesque but embedded with kernels of gorgeousness.

In his essay “What Cage Did,” Maue says, “Cage’s music is like rooms to dwell in: places to be, less important for themselves than the life occurring in them. It doesn’t lift us out of our lives, into the artist’s feelings; it gives us who we are.” And so it is with Maue’s own pieces: Though they may not always fly in conventional settings, they give us who we are.

So who am I? Or, for starters: Where do I stand on the Hellenic–Hebraic spectrum?

With my still strong appetite for sublime “space-centered” art that displays the old Aristotelian virtues of coherence, harmony, balance, grace, etc., I haven’t yet abandoned the Greek ship. However, I think it’s fair to say I have at least one foot on the deck of the Hebrew one and may well be about to leap on. I’m wild about Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, not because of the beauty of its static form but because of all the Hebraic values it embodies. If a “viewer” sees merely the black slabs carved with names of the dead, she might say, as many have, “This is what won out over fourteen hundred others?” But if she goes there and takes her time, approaches from afar, enters the roped off pathway, notices the sudden hush, walks silently until confronted with the first slab; if she reads the names, pronounces the names, touches the indentation of a name, notices the reflection of the trees in the stone, notices her own reflection or that of a weeping woman, sees the boot left at the base, the bouquet, sees a child rubbing a name, feels the heat of the sun or the bite of the wind—she will experience Lin’s genius; she will know this is a monument that gives you not just itself in steadfast granite, but yourself changing as you move through time and space; it gives you not just the dead but the living in community with others and the material world.

Also calling me toward the Hebraic ship is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in New York and Frank Gehry’s in Bilbao, both of which Alexenberg mentions. The kinetic energy of those buildings affects the way I experience the art they display, much of which, in Bilbao especially, demands physical interaction, Hebraic style. Not much of it would be deemed “beautiful.” A lot of it aims to provoke and incite change. Some of it aspires to unite, to heal. Says Suzi Gablik, an artist Alexenberg quotes: “We need an art that transcends the distanced formality of aesthetics and dares to respond to the cries of the world.” 

Once I might have been skeptical of art with a social mission, but the world is shrinking and blowing up, too. The cries of the world feel closer.

06 July 2017

Kabbalah of Digital Media and DNA

From The Times of Israel, 5 July 2017

Computer-generated hologram of the Ten Commandments created at MIT for my LightsOrot: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum 

In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich identifies the first principles of digital media as numerical representation and modularity, both central to the kabbalistic paradigm.

“Numerical Representation.  All new media objects, whether created from scratch on computers or converted from analog media sources, are composed of digital code; they are numerical representations.  Modularity.  This principle can be called the ‘fractal structure of new media.’  Just as a fractal has the same structure on different scales, a new media object has the same modular structure throughout.  Media elements, be they images, sounds, shapes, or behaviors, are represented as collections of discrete samples (pixels, polygons, voxels, characters, scripts).  These elements are assembled into larger scale objects but continue to maintain their separate identities.”

The principle of modularity and fractal structures parallels the kabbalistic concept of interinclusion in which all ten sephirot are included in each sephirah (singular form of sephirot) like the branching patterns of a tree repeated in the venation patterns of its leaves.  Interinclusion mirrors the holographic concept that all the information is contained in each part of a hologram.  In a hologram cut apart with a scissors, the whole picture can be played out with laser light from each part, unlike a photographic image cut into pieces.  Understanding new technologies helps us grasp the ancient wisdom of how the 32 information elements (ten sephirot and 22 letters) in the kabbalistic paradigm interrelate in myriad ways in the process of creating new worlds.

Sepher Yetzirah: The Book of Creation, is considered the oldest and most mysterious of all kabbalistic texts.  “With 32 mystical paths of Wisdom,” the book begins, “the Holy One created His universe with three sepharim, with sepher (form), with sephar (number), and with sipur (process).”  We have discussed earlier the SPR root of SePheR Torah, the Torah scroll, and the significance of the SPiRal scroll form in conveying the message of endless flow, of inSPiRation and SPiRituality.  In The Book of Creation, SePheR refers to the form of each Hebrew letter and the meaning the form conveys.  The first letter of the Torah is bet, which is the prefix “in” as “In the beginning” (Genesis 1:1).  Its form is a square open on the left side, like a house with an open door.  The top horizontal line of bet symbolizes heaven, the bottom line earth, and the right vertical line draws heaven down to earth.  The entire Torah flows out from the open side.  As mentioned earlier, the negative space around the letter bet forms the letter pei, which means mouth, a metaphor for the divine mouth uttering the words of the Torah. 

SePhaR is the numerical value of each letter (related to the word “cipher”).  Using the gematria system, we can calculate the numerical values of the biblical Hebrew words to discern spiritual messages from quantitative relationships between words.  Since the Hebrew words for “ladder,” “spiral,” and “Sinai” all equal 130, we learn that the ladder in Jacob’s dream was a spiral ladder like DNA that symbolizes receiving the Torah at Sinai brought down from the clouds to earth.  SiPuR means story, letters strung together in words and words sequenced in the biblical narrative of creation, revelation, and redemption.

Parallel to kabbalah’s locating number, form, and process in the spiritual realm, is the significance of number, form, and process in science’s discoveries in natural systems.  Number (sephar) determines the qualities of matter.  The smallest atom with one electron circling one proton is manifest as the gas hydrogen.  Atoms that have four electrons and four protons are carbon, from coal to diamonds.  Six are oxygen, 26 iron, 79 gold, and 92 uranium.  At the molecular level, carbon atoms surrounded by hydrogen atoms strung together like words in a sentence form the paraffin series (CnH2n+2).  One carbon, two carbons, and three carbon chains are cooking gas.  Chains with eight are liquid gasoline, and long chains of twenty carbons are solid candle wax.  If carbon chains become rings, where one end is connected to the other like a necklace, a totally changed material emerges.  A different form (sepher) with the same number of carbon atoms creates a material qualitatively different. 

The most important story (sipur) of life on this planet is a process also involving carbon and hydrogen atoms called photosynthesis (6CO2+6H2O ---- C6H12O6+6O2).  Molecules of carbon atoms linked to two oxygen atoms enter the leaves of green plants and molecules of oxygen atoms linked to two hydrogen atoms flow up into the plant from its roots.  In the leaves, with the aid of chlorophyll and sunlight, carbon dioxide and water are transformed into glucose and leftover oxygen is released into the air.  Without this process, we would have neither food to eat nor oxygen to breath.  There would be no life on planet Earth. 

The number and sequence of four compounds as the rungs of DNA double helix ladders determines a substantial part of our physical and mental traits.  Human beings have 23 pairs of DNA ladders in every cell of our body.  Having three instead of two of the 21st chromosome is expressed as Down’s syndrome.  Having 16 pairs of DNA ladders rather than 23 would make you an onion rather than a human being.  The information for all forms of life from the amoeba to the giant redwoods, from roses to elephants, from bacteria to whales, and from onions to human beings, is written with an alphabet of only four letters like the biblical Tetragrammaton.  They are A for adenine, T for thymine, C for cytosine, and G for guanine.  These letters spell four words: A-T, T-A, C-G, G-C.  Each rung of the DNA is written with one of these words.  The sequence and number of these words determines whether you have blue eyes or brown, whether you will be short or tall, and whether you will be a genius or mentally retarded.  Since all forms of life are written with same the four words, genetic engineering has developed the ability to transpose a DNA sequence from one organism to another to create a new transgenic organism.  The sequence in lilacs that made them purple can modify the DNA of a tomato to create a purple tomato.  The DNA sequence that makes jellyfish glow green in the dark can give other animals or plants that same ability.

For more about the ideas in this Times of Israel blog post, read my books Photograph God: Creative a Spiritual Blog of Your Life (CreateSpace) and The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press).  See reviews of these books at http://photographgod.com and http://future-of-art.com.

Dr. Ori Z. Soltes, author of Tradition and Transformation: Definition and the Historical Challenge of Jewish Art, Professorial Lecturer, Georgetown University, former Director, National Jewish Museum, Washington, DC, writes about my Photograph God book:

“For those of us familiar with the diverse and exhilarating work of Mel Alexenberg as an artist, educator and profound thinker, this latest book offers precisely the four things we would expect. The narrative thinks brilliantly outside the box. It synthesizes the realm of the abstruse and transcendent with the realm of the concrete and immanent. It crisscrosses disciplines, from science and technology to philosophy and mysticism to art as both historical and creative phenomena. Finally, the entirety is managed in a style both accessible and inviting. Those with prior knowledge of any or all of the disciplines from which Alexenberg draws will smile again and again in affirmation, and those entering without prior knowledge will be thrilled to understand things that they thought might be beyond them. This is one of those books that other thinkers will wish they had somehow thought about how to write, and to which readers of diverse sorts will simply respond by saying: wow!”

Dr. Ron Burnett, author of How Images Think (MIT Press, 2005) and President of Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada, writes about my book The Future of Art in a Post Digital Age:

“This is a wonderful and important book. The author links the history of art to the important role played by various forms of thinking in the Jewish tradition and connects that to the emerging culture of digital expression. Brilliant insights and new ways of seeing make this a must-read for anyone interested in the intellectual history of images in the 21st Century.”

28 June 2017

Artist Confronts Acquiescence to 'Murder Jews' March in Berlin

Israeli Artist Renews Tradition of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’

An Open Letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Berlin Mayor Michael Müller:

How could you open your streets to the Al-Quds Day rally in Berlin that called for Israel's destruction?  Why did you condone a march of virulent anti-Semites demanding the murder of the next six million Jews? 

You were silent when supporters of terrorism marched in Berlin holding aloft photographs of the leader of Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist partner.  His Al Quds Day speech was accompanied by crowds chanting “Death to Israel.”  Hezbollah’s charter calls for a terrorist struggle that will not end until the Jewish State is obliterated.  They have tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Israel’s cities from Lebanon ready to be launched on orders from Teheran.  According to your own intelligence agency, there are 250 active Hezbollah members and supporters in Berlin and some 950 Hezbollah operatives in Germany.

Knesset Member Yair Lapid, son of a Holocaust survivor, wrote to Mayor Müller: “Your decision to remain silent in the face of this incitement and hatred is a grave mistake. Allowing the glorification of terrorism in your city won’t appease extremists, it will embolden them.”  He ended his letter: “We would never allow a parade celebrating the murder of your citizens, why do you allow a parade celebrating the murder of ours?”

In the tradition of Picasso’s Guernica extended into networked times, I created the “Future Holocaust Memorials” blogart project in 2006 http://futureholocaustmemorials.blogspot.com as a wakeup call to prevent a second Holocaust being planned by Iran and is allies.

As an artist whose artworks are in the collections of forty museum worldwide, I am offering to upgrade the Berlin monument built as a memorial to the first six million Jews that Germany exterminated.  I propose doubling the size of the sprawling field of 2,700 stone slabs by adding 2,700 more stone slabs as a future memorial to the six million Jews of Israel incinerated by Iranian nuclear bombs. 5,400 stone slabs for twelve million Jews murdered.


My proposal follows in the tradition of artists who confronted evil through their artworks like Picasso’s Guernica crying out against the bombing practice by Hitler’s burgeoning war machine killing hundreds in a village in Spain in 1937. Just as the world’s acquiescence to Hitler’s raining bombs on the village of Guernica gave him the license to proceed with preparing for WW II and exterminating the Jews of Europe on his way to global conquest, the world’s indifference to the thousands of rockets aimed at Israel by Iran and its proxy armies, Hamas and Hezbollah, are empowering Iran to annihilate the Jews of Israel as a prelude to global jihad.

Do not forget the partnership of Germany and the Arabs to exterminate Jews during the second World War.  The anti-Semitic marchers in Berlin this past weekend are the heirs of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who joined the Nazis in exterminating Jews.  Below is the Nuremberg trial testimony of SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Dieter Wisliceny (Adolf Eichmann’s right-hand man):
“According to my own opinion, the Grand Mufti [Hajj Amin al Husseini], who has been in Berlin since 1941, played a role in the decision of the German Government to exterminate the European Jews, the importance of which must not be disregarded. He had repeatedly suggested to the various authorities with whom he has been in contact, above all before Hitler, Ribbentrop and Himmler, the extermination of European Jewry. He considered this as a comfortable solution of the Palestine problem. In his messages broadcast from Berlin, he surpassed us in anti-Jewish attacks. He was one of Eichmann’s best friends and has constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures. I heard say that, accompanied by Eichmann, he has visited incognito the gas chamber at Auschwitz.”

I hope that today’s Germany will partner with Israel in defeating Islamist terrorism that seeks to exterminate the Jewish State and spread its hatred of freedom and democracy in Germany and throughout the world.

Respectfully yours,

Prof. Mel Alexenberg 
melalexenberg@yahoo.com, Ra’anana, Israel 

"Artist Confronts Acquiescence to 'Murder Jews' March in Berlin," The Times of Israel, 27 June 2017
"Israeli Artist Renews Tradition of Picasso's 'Guernica'," LinkedIn article, 28 June 2017

11 June 2017

Alexenberg Explores "Art, Zionism and Identity" at The Times of Israel


Mel Alexenberg's article "On Being a Zionist Artist in the Networked World" appears as a five part series in The Times of Israel. The series can be accessed at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/ and read below.

08 June 2017

Art, Zionism, and Identity in a Networked World

(From The Times of Israel, 20 April 2017) 

This blog post is the first of a series of five in The Times of Israel that explores my thoughts and experiences at the interface between art in a postdigital age, Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, and multiple identities as an American-born Israeli artist, educator, writer, and blogger.  All five articles in the series are published below.


The AT&T Annual Report photo above shows me receiving a digitized Rembrandt angel returning from a five hour circumglobal flight via communications satellites from New York, Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Tokyo and Los Angeles, returning to New York after having flown into tomorrow and back into yesterday.    

“Art, Zionism, and Identity in a Networked World” was first published in Hebrew in Zipora: Journal of Education and Contemporary Art and Design. I wrote about the conceptual background for this series in my books: The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press), Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life (CreateSpace), and in Hebrew Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Four Essays on Judaism and Contemporary Art.

Renew the old and sanctify the new

The great biblical miracle of liberating one nation of thousands from enslavement in the one country of Egypt after hundreds of years of exile pales in comparison with the Zionist miracle in our time of liberating millions of Jews from persecution, pogroms, and the Holocaust in scores of countries after thousands of years of exile and bringing them home to Israel.  Choosing to be an integral part of this Zionist miracle, unprecedented in world history, offers me enthralling creative opportunities as an artist. 

I draw inspiration from the Zionist challenge of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to “renew the old and sanctify the new” as I explore the vibrant interface between the structure of Jewish consciousness, the realization of the Zionist dream in the State of Israel, and new directions in art emerging from postdigital creativity in a networked world.  The wellsprings of my Zionism flows from my Jewish roots and values while the form and content of my art emerges from Jewish thought and experience in a networked world in which of art, science, technology, and culture address each other. 

As an artist born and educated in the United States, I chose to leave a country that I love and that gave me wonderful professional opportunities to be part of the Zionist enterprise that permits me to be more fully immersed at the center of Jewish life.  Zionism seeks to ensure the future and distinctiveness of the Jewish people by fostering Jewish spiritual and cultural values in its historic homeland (World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem Program, 2004).  As a Zionist artist I strive to create both an intimate dialogue with the Jewish people and a lively conversation with people throughout the world.

Art crossing over into a new reality

The biblical story of the Jewish people begins with the journey of Abraham as he crosses over from his all too familiar past to see a fresh vision of a future in a new land.  Indeed, Abraham is called a Hebrew (Ivri) – one who crosses over into a new reality.  Abraham is told: “Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)   This passage can also be read as: “Walk with your authentic self away from all the familiar and comfortable places that limit vision to a land where you can freely see.” Here, the dynamic Hebraic mindset is established as new ways of seeing emerge from the integration of our journey to the Land of Israel with our inner quest for spiritual significance.

The personal power of Abraham to leave an obsolete past behind and to cross conceptual boundaries into an unknown future presents a powerful message to me as a Zionist artist living in a democratic Jewish State in a postdigital age.  Today in Israel and at the leading edge of technologically advanced societies worldwide, we are beginning to cross over from the digital culture of the Information Age to a Conceptual Age in which people in all walks of life will succeed most when they behave like artists who integrate left-brain with right-brain thinking.  Industrial Age factory workers and Information Age knowledge workers are being superseded by Conceptual Age creators and empathizers who integrate high tech abilities with high touch and high concept abilities of aesthetic and spiritual significance.
Art debunking art

Subverting idolatry with a twist of irony has been the mission of the Jews from their very beginning.  As a prelude to the biblical story of Abraham beginning his journey away from his father’s world to the Land of Israel, the Midrash tells that Abraham was minding his father’s idol shop when he took a stick and smashed the merchandise to bits.  He left only the largest idol untouched placing the stick in its hand.  When his father returned, his shock at seeing the scene of devastation grew into fury as he demanded an explanation from his son.  Abraham explained how the largest idol had broken all the other idols.  He could have smashed all the idols without saving one on which to place the blame.  An idol smashing idols gives us clues for creating art to debunk art, art that aims to undermine undue reverence for art, art that challenges the established canon of Western art. 

I am interested in creating art to knock art off its pedestal by displaying a creative skepticism not just towards art’s subjects but also towards its purposes.  In his book Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century, Ori Z. Soltes, professor of art and theology at Georgetown University, comments on my series of Digitized Homage to Rembrandt paintings, photomontages, computer-generated etchings, serigraphs, lithographs, and telecommunications events: “Alexenberg appropriates an iconic image from the Christian art tradition: Rembrandt’s angel, who wrestles with Jacob.  But he transforms and distorts it, digitalizing and dismembering it, transforming the normative Western tradition within which he works as he rebels against it.”  My painting is the cover image of Soltes’ book.      

Art emerging from Hebraic rather than Hellenistic consciousness

As a Zionist artist, I am joining artists worldwide in liberating art from Hellenistic dominance since its revival in the Renaissance.  The 20th century was a century of modernism that aimed to undermine the Hellenistic definition of art.  The 21st century invites a redefinition of art derived from the Hebraic roots of Western culture rather than its Hellenistic roots.  Winston Churchill writes in his History of the Second World War:
“The Greeks and the Jews are the two peoples whose worldviews have most influenced the way we think and act.  Each of them from angles so different has left us with the inheritance of its genius and wisdom.  No two cities have counted more with Mankind than Athens and Jerusalem.  Their messages in religion, philosophy, and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture.”  

More than three thousand years ago, King David moved the capital of ancient Israel from Hebron to Jerusalem.  Five centuries later during the Golden Age of Athens, the major temples of the Acropolis were built under the leadership of Pericles.  In my MERIWIP: MEditerranean RIm WIkiart Project, a text inviting the participation of people from the 21 Mediterranean rim countries was posted on my art blog http://www.wikiartists.us in the many languages of these countries.  Only Hebrew and Greek, the millennia old languages of the indigenous peoples of the Land of Israel and Greece are still in use and continue to be written with the same two ancient alphabets.      
            
The Hellenistic definition of art as mimesis is reflected in the words for art in contemporary European languages: art in English and French, arte in Spanish, Kunst in German and Dutch, and iskustvo in Russian.  The roots of all these words are related to artificial, artifact, imitation, and phony.  In contrast, the Hebrew word for artist (oman) is spelled AMN with the same letters as the word amen which means truth.  Its feminine form is emunah, faith, and as a verb l’amen means to nurture and educate. 


This ancient Greek view of art as mimesis, imitating nature, arresting the flow of life, has become obsolete as new definitions of art are arising from Jewish thought and action that explore issues of truth, faith, and education as they enrich everyday life.  In Thorleif Boman’s  classic book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Hebraic thought  is characterized as being “dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and sometimes quite explosive in kind; correspondingly Greek thinking is static, peaceful, moderate, and harmonious in kind.”  That it is the Hebraic rather than the Hellenistic roots of Western culture that is redefining art in a rapidly expanding networked world is argued in my book The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) and its Hebrew version Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Four Essays on Judaism and Contemporary Art. (See reviews at http://future-of-art.com.)

Art Medium as an Expression of a Jewish Message

(From The Times of Israel, 27 April 2017)

This article is the second in the “Art, Zionism, and Identity in a Networked World” series in The Times of Israel.  The series explores my thoughts and experiences at the interface between art in a postdigital age, Zionism as the creation of the vibrant State of Israel after two millennia of exile, and multiple identities as an American-born Israeli artist, educator, writer, and blogger. The entire series can be accessed at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/.
             
         “Art, Zionism, and Identity in a Networked World” was first published in Hebrew in Zipora: Journal of Education and Contemporary Art and Design. I wrote about the conceptual background for this series in my books: The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) http://future-of-art.com, Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life (CreateSpace) http://photgraphgod.com, and in Hebrew Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Four Essays on Judaism and Contemporary Art.


Art is a biofeedback-generated self-portrait

The photograph above demonstrates the medium conveying a Jewish message.  It shows my Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim artwork, a biofeedback generated interactive system that I created at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  It plays with the words p’nim (inside) and p’anim (face) that are both spelled with the same Hebrew letters.  This dialogic artwork creates a feedback loop in which one’s internal mind/body state (p’nim) constantly changes a digital image of one’s external self (panim).  A portrait derived from Jewish consciousness is a dynamic changing system presenting the flow of life forces between spiritual and material realms rather than a static painting of a frozen face enclosed in a gold frame.       

Art conveying its message through form and medium

The significance of form and medium in Jewish life is so strong that we only read the Torah portion in synagogue from a scroll hand-written on parchment.  If we have no Torah scroll, we read nothing at all rather than read the identical content from a Hebrew Bible printed in a rectangular codex book form.  Tradition teaches how the Israelites were enslaved in the malben, which means both brickyard and rectangle. The Torah trapped in a malben between two book covers cannot convey a message of liberation expressed by a free-flowing spiral scroll.  The heart (spelled LB in Hebrew) of the Torah is the place where the last letter L in the word yisrael (Israel) is linked to the first letter B in b’reshit (In the beginning) in an endless flow.  Both changing form and medium radically changes the message.  A Torah written on Japanese rice paper is bizarre and one written on pigskin would be the ultimate anti-Semitic statement.  We can recognize the life-affirming parallel between the double spiral of the Torah scroll and the DNA molecule in which all life forms are encoded. 

To explore form and media in Jewish thought and experience, I invited fellow artists at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies to collaborate with me in creating LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age, 8 an exhibition for Yeshiva University Museum. Creating art in a digital age in a networked world offers Zionist artists unprecedented opportunities to invent alternative art forms and explore new media confluent with the structure of Jewish consciousness.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the first Zionist artists Ephriam Lilien and Boris Schatz, the artists who participated in the exhibition at the 5th Zionist Congress in 1901, and the theoreticians of culture Martin Buber and Ahad Ha’am saw Zionist art only in terms of content and iconography.7 Landscapes of the Land of Israel, Jewish subjects, and biblical scenes idealizing the Bedouin types as if they were ancient Israelites were the content of their artwork expressed in alien European forms and media.   These first Zionist artists did not liberate themselves from the Hellenistic definition of art that was plastered over their Jewish consciousness by centuries of indoctrination living in Europe.
Art revealing the power of Hebrew letters in an era of digital and bio technologies 

One of the Zionist enterprise’s greatest accomplishments is reviving Hebrew as the common everyday language uniting Jews who have returned to their homeland speaking scores of different languages. There is an aesthetic and spiritual power in seeing Hebrew letters dancing across storefronts in the Jewish State, flashing across TV screens, using smartphones set for Hebrew language, and surfing the Internet in the ancient biblical language.   Hebrew letters have a special meaning for the artist.   The mishkan’s artist, Betzalel, is said to have had the divine secret of forging combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters to create new worlds. The digital era makes this kabbalistic notion of artistic creativity through making permutations of bits of information more than a quaint legend.  It is computer science rather than mysticism, physics rather than metaphysics that lets us reveal in our times this ancient wisdom.  All the multitude of words, sounds and images that we can access today on the Internet, CDs, and DVDs are encoded in bits strung together in groupings of eight called bytes. The 256 bit permutations in one byte are in turn grouped into billions of combinations that we perceive as a web site, a computer game, a text, a song, or a movie.


This image is a computer-generated hologram of the two versions of the Ten Commandments that I created with laser experts at MIT for my exhibition “LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age” at Yeshiva University Museum. 

Jewish tradition sees the 22 sacred Hebrew letters as profound, primal, spiritual forces, the raw material of Creation.  The numerous alternative arrangements of the letters in words results in different blends of cosmic spiritual forces that finds a parallel in natural systems where different numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons form the atoms of each of the 92 different elements. These atoms, in turn, combine into molecules, and molecules into supersized molecules like DNA in which the code of all life’s forms is written with only four letters: A-T, T-A, and C-G, G-C.   The interplay between combinations and permutations of Hebrew letters in the spiritual realm, of atoms and molecules in the physical realm, and bits and bytes in the realm of digital media, provides raw materials for creating artworks that generate a lively dialog between the Jewish past and Israel’s future as a world center of digital and bio technologies. 

Art revealing the spiritual dimensions of everyday life in the Land of Israel 

The great transgression of ten of the leaders of the Israelite tribes who were charged to spy out the Land of Israel after their exodus from Egypt was their inability to discern the difference between hard work as slaves in Egypt and hard work building their own land.   Only Joshua and Calev met the challenge.  The Torah tells us that Calev of the tribe of Judah had “a different spirit” (Numbers: 14:24).  Unlike the others, he was able to make the paradigm shift to recognize that the challenge of living in the Land of Israel was to see spirituality emerging from all aspects of life. 

Ten of the spies chose to remain in the desert where they could live a totally spiritual existence learning Torah all day.  They would not have to work at all since food was delivered daily for free at the opening of their tents.  In the Land of Israel, they would have to grow their own food, build houses, fight enemies, and collect garbage which seemed to them like returning to the slavery they had just left.  These ten spies were sentenced to death in the desert for their inability to see that the spiritual arises from the quality of one’s encounter with the material world.  The descendents of Calev’s tribe of Judea are almost all of the Jews who have the great privilege of returning to our homeland and rebuilding it 3,500 years later.  Most of the descendents of the ten spies who lacked “a different spirit” have disappeared.

Calev’s great-grandson, the prototypic Jewish artist Betzalel, sets a direction for today’s Zionist artists by having created an environment that invites holiness into our concrete world – “God walks in the midst of the camp…therefore shall your camp be holy” (Deuteronomy 23:15).  I invited my students at Emunah College School of the Arts in Jerusalem and at Ariel University to reveal holiness by photographing divine light emanating from their everyday life in Israel.

We can appreciate Calev’s alternative viewpoint through the 20th century experience of the Rebbe of Sadegora, Rabbi Avraham Freidman (1884-1961). The Nazis attempted to humiliate the Rebbe in the eyes of his Hasidim by forcing him at gunpoint to work all day sweeping streets and collecting garbage and at night to march waving a Nazi flag.   The Rebbe survived the Holocaust and moved to Tel Aviv where he rose early every morning in the week before Israel Independence Day to join the city’s sanitation workers in sweeping streets and collecting garbage.  At night, he could be seen walking through the streets of Tel Aviv waving the Israeli flag.  He marveled at the great privilege he had to keep his city clean and to honor his nation’s flag.

Artistic Partnership Renewed After Three Millennia

(From The Times of Israel, 18 May 2017)

This article is the third of a series in The Times of Israel that explores the interface between art, Zionism, and identity in a networked world. The full “Art, Zionism and Identity in a Networked World” series can be accessed at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/.


It explores the Zionist miracle of the descendants of the tribes of Judah and Dan who created the Tabernacle creating art together today after more than three millennia apart.  The photograph above shows my students at Emunah College School of the Arts in Jerusalem holding a children’s book created by a student whose parents came home to Israel from Ethiopia. It tells an Ethiopian fable she illustrated with paintings and designed with texts in Hebrew and Amharic.

It also discusses how art imitating the Creator rather than the creation is derived from Jewish consciousness, how spiritual art is created in a playful spirit, and art educating through visual midrash. These ideas are expanded in my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life http://photographgod.com.       

Teaching the descendants of Betzalel and Oholiav in Jerusalem

The Torah describes two prototypic Jewish artists – Betzalel and Oholiav.   “See, I have called by name: Betzalel ben Uri ben Hur, of the tribe of Judah.  I have filled him with a divine spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, and with the talent for all types of craftsmanship” (Exodus 31:2). 

The literal translation of this artist’s name is: “In the Divine Shadow son of Fiery Light son of Freedom.”  It honors the artist’s passion and freedom of expression.  The Torah describes Betzalel’s partner, “I have assigned with him Oholiav ben Ahisamakh of the tribe of Dan, and I have placed wisdom in the heart of every naturally talented person” (Exodus 31:6).    Oholiav’s full name means “My Tent of Reliance on Father, Son, and My Brother,” integrating the contemporary with its past and future.  Father, son, and brother stand together with the artist in a common tent in mutual support of one another.  Betzalel represents the psychological power of the artist and Oholiav the sociological impact on community.  Working together, they create a shared environment of spiritual power.

As head of Emunah College School of the Arts in Jerusalem, I had the privilege of seeing the descendants of Betzalel of the tribe of Judah and Oholiav of the tribe of Dan creating artworks together.  Most of the Jews in Israel today are from the tribe of Judea.  The Ethiopians are the tribe of Dan.  It is a Zionist miracle that we have the gained the opportunity of renewing the sacred partnership of Bezalel and Oholiav after millennia of separation. 

Art imitating the Creator rather than the creation 

I am interested in being an active partner of the Creator of the universe in the on-going creation of new worlds.  As a Jewish artist, it is not the Hellenistic vision of a complete and ideal nature to be copied that is the primary artistic value, but it is the emulation of the process of creation itself that is valued.  Therefore, I studied in depth the creative process in art and science from a psychodynamic point of view that I present in my book Aesthetic Experience in Creative Process (Bar-Ilan University Press).

Two millennia ago, the Roman governor over the Land of Israel asked Rabbi Akiva, “Which are greater and more beautiful, human creations or God’s?”  The governor was disturbed by the rabbi’s response that human creation is more exalted than divine creation.  While the Roman was questioning the rabbi’s unexpected response, the rabbi served a plate of wheat grains to the Roman and took cakes for himself.  The puzzled Roman asked, “Why do you take cakes for yourself while you give me raw grains of wheat?”  Rabbi Akiva answered, “You prefer God’s creation.  I prefer the creations of human hands!”

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook provides a poetic manifesto for the Zionist artist derived from the deep structure of Jewish consciousness in Lights of Holiness (Orot Hakodesh). Rabbi Kook was the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel and founder of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem where my son Rabbi Ron Alexenberg studied.           
“Whoever is endowed with the soul of a creator must create works of imagination and thought, for the flame of the soul rises by itself and one cannot impede it on its course…. The creative individual brings vital, new light from the higher source where originality emanates to the place where it has not previously been manifest, from the place that “no bird of prey knows, nor has the falcon’s eye seen.” (Job 28:7), “that no man has passed, nor has any person dwelt” (Jeremiah 2:6).”                                                                                     
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik proposes that the dream of creation is the central idea in Jewish consciousness – the idea of the importance of human partnership with the Almighty in creating new worlds.  Rabbi Soloveitchik taught at the rabbinical college at Yeshiva University and served as president of the Mizrachi Zionists of America.  He writes in his seminal book Halachic Man:
“This longing for creation and the renewal of the cosmos is embodied in all of Judaism’s goals….  If a man wishes to attain the rank of holiness, he must become a creator of worlds.  If a man never creates, never brings into being anything new, anything original, then he cannot be holy unto his God.  That passive type who is derelict in fulfilling his task of creation cannot become holy.  Creation is the lowering of transcendence into the midst of our turbid, coarse, material world.”

I attempt to act as partner of the Creator during six days of the week.  However, I stop my creative work one day each week and step back to admire and honor the handiwork of the Creator of the universe.  This Sabbath Day is both a Non-Art Day and an Ecology Day.  Emulating Betzalel and his artistic collaborators who stopped building the mishkan on Shabbat, I stop my artistic activities on the seventh day to celebrate Non-Art Day.  Indeed, all Shabbat observance is defined by artistic activity, by the 39 craft categories involved in building the mishkan.  From when the sun sets on Friday evening to the time stars dot the sky on Saturday night, I celebrate Non-Art Day as well as Ecology Day by leaving the world the way I got it.  I replenish my soul on Shabbat so that on the eighth day I can resume with renewed energies the role of partner with the Creator in tikun olam, actively making the world a better place for all humanity. 

Art imitating the Creator rather than the creation 

As an artist, I engage the Torah in creative play through both my conceptual and aesthetic explorations. The Torah itself teaches us to approach it in a playful spirit.  In Psalm 119:174, we read: “Your Torah is my plaything (sha’ashua).”  Sha’ashua is a toy to engage children in play.  In Proverbs 8:30, 31, King Solomon speaks in the voice of the Torah: “I [the Torah] was the artist’s plan.  I was His [God’s] delight every day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the inhabited areas of His earth, my delights are with human beings.”  This translation from the Hebrew original is based on the ancient wisdom on the first page of Midrash Rabba.  God as the master artist played creatively with the Torah, His plan for creating the universe.  Midrash Rabba uses these two verses from Proverbs to explain the first words of the Torah, “In the beginning God created.”  God first created “Beginning” referring to the Torah as an open-ended blueprint for creating the world.  We learn this from an earlier verse, Proverbs 8:22, “God made me [the Torah] as the beginning of His way, before His deeds of yore.”  In human emulation of God’s delight, we are invited to play with the Torah as we create new worlds.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote a letter of congratulations on the founding of the Betzalel Art School in Jerusalem in 1906.  By way of allegory, he refers to the revival of Jewish art and aesthetics after two thousand years of exile as a child in a coma who awakes calling for her doll. 
“The pleasant and beloved child, the delightful daughter, after a long and forlorn illness, with a face as pallid as plaster, bluish lips, fever burning like a fiery furnace, and   convulsive shaking and trembling, behold!  She has opened her eyes and her tightly sealed lips, her little hands move with renewed life, her thin pure fingers wander hither and thither, seeking their purpose; her lips move and almost revert to their normal color, and as if through a medium a voice is heard: “Mother, Mother, the doll, give me the doll,   the dear doll, which I have not seen for so long.”  A voice of mirth and a voice of gladness, all are joyous, the father, the mother, the brothers and sisters, even the elderly man and woman who, because of their many years, have forgotten their children’s games.”

Rabbi Kook saw artists at work as a clear sign of the rebirth of the Jewish people in its homeland.  Their playful spirit nurturing sensitivity for beauty “will uplift depressed souls, giving them a clear and illuminating view of the beauty of life, nature, and work.”  

Not only are the Hebrew words for ‘artist’ and ‘educating’ related, but the Torah teaches that Betzalel and Oholiav are divinely endowed with artistic talent coupled with the talent to teach (Exodus 35:30-34). Creating art can be an alternative method of Torah study that beautifies the mitzvah of study through creating visual midrashMidrash is the unique Jewish literary form that combines commentary, legend, and narrative explanations of biblical texts.  In a sense, midrash fills the spaces between the written words to reveal deeper meanings of scriptural passages.  Art as visual midrash provides fresh commentaries on biblical texts through multimedia experiences that extend the verbal exploration of text into visual realms.  ‘Context’ in its primal meaning is ‘with text’ while context is the defining characteristic of postmodern art.

In order to better understand the cultural context of my values as a Zionist artist in an era of globalization, I invited renowned art educators worldwide to redefine art and art education at the interdisciplinary interface where scientific inquiry and new technologies shape aesthetic and cultural values – local and global.  This inquiry resulted in my book Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology, and Culture (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) http://future-of-art.com.