Subway Angles and Jacob's Ladder: Ten sephirot of Creative Process

 

Excerpt from Mel Alexenberg, The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) pp. 118-127.

 

The process of creating a series of artworks, Subway Angels, illuminate a kabbalistic model composed of ten stages (corresponding to ten sephirot) and 22 pathways between them (corresponding to the 22 Hebrew letters).  The description of this creative process emphasizes the flow from stage to stage, from preconscious intention to realization in the physical world.  It provides a framework for understanding from a kabbalistic perspective how Subway Angels emerged as part my Digitized Homage to Rembrandt project.  Following this narrative that spanned several years, I dwell in greater depth on each of the ten sephirot separately. Each sephirah (singular of sephirot) is illuminated by the creative experiences of prominent artists and scientists that they described to me in recorded interviews.  

 

The creative process begins in the preconscious realm of faith, pleasure, and intention.  This first of the sephirot is the sepherah of Crown (Keter).  Just as a crown floats above the head, so Crown is an undifferentiated longing to create that precedes the cognitive realm.  It sets the stage for the first flash of insight.  It is made up of three elements – faith that one can create, anticipation that the creative process is pleasurable, and intention to create.  Without this self-confidence, hope for gratification, and will to create, the creative process has no beginning. 

 

The inner experience of the second sephirah of Wisdom (Hokhmah) requires a selfless state. The nullification of the ego opens gateways to the subconscious.  When active seeking ceases, when consciously preoccupied with unrelated activities, when we least expect it, the germ of the creative idea bursts into our consciousness.  This sudden flash of insight is what the kabbalah calls wisdom.  It is the transition from nothingness to being, from potential to the first moment of existence.  In biblical words, “Wisdom shall be found in nothingness” (Job 28:12).

 

The process of creating Subway Angels began as I sat in a small Hasidic synagogue in Brooklyn following the reading of the weekly biblical portion from the handwritten Torah scroll.  I listened to the ancient Hebrew words, translating them into English in my mind.  The sentence about the prototypic artist Betzalel being filled with divine spirit, wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, and talent for all types of craftsmanship is followed by “to make all manner of MeLekHet MakHSheVeT” (Exodus 35:33).  Usually translated as “artistic work,” it literally means “thoughtful craft.”

 

At that moment, I was living in the Crown sephirah.  As an artist, I subconsciously intended to create artworks; I had faith in my ability to create artworks; and I felt that I would derive pleasure from the process of making art.  However, it was the Sabbath and I was removed from my studio, from my classroom where I taught computer graphics, and from my office as head of the art department at Pratt Institute.  Indeed, the definition of Sabbath rest is to refrain from making MeLekHet MakHSheVeT.  The Sabbath day is biblically defined as the Non-Art day.  It is the day in which all work on the Tabernacle was suspended.  To this day, an observant Jew on the Sabbath avoids doing any of the 39 categories of thoughtful craft that went into the biblical artists’ creation of the Tabernacle. 

 

My absorption in the rhythm of the chanting of the Torah put me into a meditative state.  I was passively listening, open to receiving.  The stage was set for the Wisdom sephirah.  In a flash of insight I realized that as a male artist, I needed to create computer angels.  It suddenly dawned on me that the biblical term for “art,” MeLekHeT MakHSheVeT, is feminine.  Its masculine form is MaLakH MakHSheV, literally “computer angel.”  Art is a computer angel when biblical Hebrew meets modern Hebrew in a digital age.

 

Like the sperm that is received by the ovum in the womb, the unformed germ of an idea from the Wisdom sephirah enters into the sephirah of Understanding (Binah).  This union of Wisdom and Understanding is Knowledge (Daat), as Adam knew Eve.  As soon as the synagogue service came to an end, I explained to my wife that I needed to make computer angels.  “You need to make what?” she responded incredulously.  As I transformed my unformed insight into words to explain my thoughts to her, I entered into the Understanding sephirah.  All manner of thoughts entered my mind on ways to create computer angels.  The shapeless idea that ignited the process began to take form in the Undersanding sephirah Together, Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge form the cognitive realm of thoughts.  Knowledge both unites Wisdom and Understanding and is the gateway to the next six sephirot that form the affective realm of emotions. 

 

The fourth sephirah of Compassion (Hesed) is openness to all possibilities.  I thought of the hundreds of artistic options open to me in creating computer angels and I love them all.  Compassion is counterbalanced by the fifth sephirah of Strength (Gevurah), the strength to set limits, to make judgments, to choose between myriad options.  It demands that I make hard choices about which paths to take and which options to abandon.  What angel images do I digitize?  What media do I use?  Should I make paintings, lithographs, serigraphs, etchings, multimedia works, videos, or telecommunication events in which cyberangels fly around the planet via satellites?  Even if I would love to do all of these things, I must choose one of them to begin with.

 

I recalled that a few weeks earlier, my son Ron had sent me an article on Rabbi Kook’s views that the light in Rembrandt’s paintings was the hidden light of the first day of Creation. At the time, Ron was archivist at Beit Harav Kook in Jerusalem, the residence of the late kabbalist and chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook.  This article coupled with my connection to Holland through my wife’s Dutch family made it clear that my first choice was to digitize Rembrandt’s angels.  I thought I should go to the print room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I could look at original Rembrandt drawings and etchings and select images of his angels. 

 

I knew that he had created a host of artworks of Jacob’s dream. “A ladder was standing on the ground, and its top reached up toward heaven, and angels were going up and down on it.” (Genesis 28:12).  Since angels first go up before they go down, they must start their ascent from the lowest of places.  In New York City, perhaps angels fly up from the subways.  It seemed like a great idea to paint on subway posters and silk-screen print on them digitized Rembrandt angels and spiritual messages from underground. 

 

As I felt deep satisfaction with my choice, I departed from the Strength sephirah of to the next stage, the sixth sephirah of Beauty (Tiferet).  This sephirah represents a beautiful balance resonating between the counter forces of Compassion and Strength.  It is the feeling of harmony between all my possible options and the choices I had made.  It is the aesthetic core of the creative process in which beauty, splendor, and truth are experienced as being intrinsically valued.  Beauty is not a sephirah of static harmony, but rather a harmonious feeling shaped by the dynamic interplay of counter forces where Compassion does not overwhelm Strength and Strength does not overwhelm Compassion.  I experienced the splendidly harmonious feeling that all is going beautifully. 

 

The seventh sephirah of Success (Netzah) is the feeling of being victorious in the quest for significance.  I felt that I had the power to overcome any obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing my artwork.  The word Netzah is also related to “conduct” or “orchestrate” as in the word that begins many of the Psalms.  I had the confidence that I could orchestrate all the aspects of creating a multimedia symphony of computer angels arising from the bowels of New York City. 

 

The eighth sephirah of Gracefulness (Hod) is the glorious feeling that the final shaping of the idea is going so smoothly that it seems as effortless as the movements of a graceful dancer.  The Success sephirah is an active self-confidence in contrast with the Gracefulness sephirah which is a passive confidence born of a trust in divine providence that “all will be good.”  It is the power to advance smoothly with the determination and perseverance born of deep inner commitment.  The word Hod connotes both “acknowledgement” (hoda’ah) and “splendor” in the sense of an aura-like “reverberation” (hed) of light.  The Gracefulness sephirah serves to endow the source of one’s inspiration with an aura of splendor and majesty. It is the wonderful feeling that all is going as it should be.

 

The ninth sephirah of Foundation (Yesod) is the sensuous bonding of Success-and Gracefulness in a union that leads to the birth of the fully formed idea.  It funnels the integrated forces of intention, thought, and emotion of the previous eight sephirot into the world of physical action.  In Chronicles 1:29, this sephirah is called All or Everything (kol).  It channels everything that was playing out in my mind into the craft of making the artwork.  It transforms my private mental world into a public environmental product that can communicate my ideas to others.

 

This tenth sephirah of Kingdom (Malkhut) is the noble realization my concepts and feelings in the kingdom of time and space. It involves all the practical details that go into physically making an artwork.  I began the actualization of my concepts by going to the company that places advertising posters in subway cars.  They gave me fifty different placards on which I painted and silk-screened printed angels and spiritual messages based upon Hebrew word play.

 

Exhibiting my series of Subway Angels was a culminating activity that gave me the opportunity to stand back and look at what I had done.  This activity is parallel to the divine act on the seventh day when God looked at the completed creation and saw that it was good.  My sense of satisfaction, however, began to turn into a feeling of postpartum emptiness.  I had given over my creations to the world and they were no longer mine to possess. 

 

The tenth Kingdom sephirah, the realm of physical reality, was being transformed into the first Crown sephirah, the return to subconscious longing to create anew.  The process had come full circle.  The Kingdom and Crown sephirot, the end and the beginning, merge along an endlessly flowing Mobius strip.  The ancient kabbalistic text, The Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah 1:7), teaches: “Their end is imbedded in their beginning and their beginning in their end like a flame in a burning coal.”  The linear progression through ten sephirot presented above is oversimplified to emphasize the flow from subconscious intention to actualization in the material realm.  However, not only does the end transform itself into the beginning as in the Torah scroll, but there is movement in multiple directions between the SePhiRot and within them.  The creative process is recursive and holographic.  This complex multidirectional process can best be understood by hearing the narrative relating the story (SiPuR) of the artist’s life experiences and thoughts.  The narrative presents ways to see sources that shape the pool of images and ideas from which new artworks emerge.