Mel Alexenberg

Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press, 2006; paperback edition, 2008

The Future of Art in a Digital Age develops the thesis that the transition from premodernism to postmodernism in art represents a paradigm shift from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic roots of Western culture.  Semiotic and morphological analysis of art and visual culture demonstrate the contemporary confluence between Jewish consciousness and postmodern directions in art and architecture.  Complementing these two analytic methodologies, art and visual culture are also examined using distinctively Jewish methodologies of kabbalah and halakhah.  Exemplary artworks are described to concretize the conceptual processes.

Praise for the Book

“In his book, Mel Alexenberg navigates his artistic insight amid the labyrinthian complexities, explosions, and revolutions of the past forty years of art, tracing his way amid questions of science and religion, technology and environment, education, culture, and cosmos.  Everyone will find his book full of new vantage points and vistas, fresh insights that give a uniquely personal history of artistic time that indeed points to new and open futures.”

- Prof. Lowry Burgess, Dean and Distinguished Fellow of the Studio for Creative Inquiry, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.  

“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.”

Dr. Ron Burnett, author of How Images Think (MIT Press), President of Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada.

“The author succeeds in opening a unique channel to the universe of present and future art in a highly original and inspiring way. His connection between ancient concepts (Judaism) and the present digital age will force us to thoroughly rethink our ideas about art, society and technology. This book is evidence that Golem is alive!”

- Prof. Michael Bielicky, Professor and Head of the Department of InfoArt/Digital Media, Hochschule fur Gestaltung / ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany.

“Mel Alexenberg, a very sophisticated artist and scholar of much experience in the complex playing field of art-science-technology, addresses the rarely asked question: How does the "media magic" communicate content?”

- Prof. Otto Piene, Professor Emeritus and Director, MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. 

“This book is simply a must read analysis for anyone interested in where we and the visual arts are going in our future.  Alexenberg has provided us with powerful new lenses to allow us to "see" how postmodern art movements and classical Judaic traditions compliment and fructify one another as the visual arts are now enlarging and adding a spiritual dimension to our lives in the digital era.”

- Dr. Moshe Dror, President of World Network of Religious Futurists, and Israel Coordinator of World Future Society.

"Opens new vistas in the attempt to reconcile the newest developments in digital art and postmodern critical perspective with the ancient concerns of the art with the spiritual."

-Prof. Stephen Wilson, author of Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology (MIT Press) and Professor of Cenceptual and Information Art at San Franciso State University.

“This Hebraic-postmodern quest is for a dialogue midway on Jacob’s ladder where man and God, artist and society, and artwork and viewer/participant engage in ongoing commentary.”

- Dr. Randall Rhodes, Professor and Chairman, Department of Visual Art, Frostburg State University, Maryland. 

“This book is amazing, so deep and insightful and full of sweet revelations at each turn of the page!  It rocks the world and brings some desperately needed light.”

- Dr. David Lazerson, author of Skullcaps ‘N Switchblades.

“Like the Torah itself that Alexenberg refers to regularly, the book is complex.  He writes in a lively, engaging style....  I found it informative, optimistic, and spiritually refreshing.”

- Prof. Rob Harle, Leonardo: Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology

“Alexenberg offers special insights into the post-modern nature of the Talmud’s biblical consciousness as an open-ended living system.  His argument is that the new paradigm of art must be of a structural and dynamic nature.  Here, he quotes Allan Kaprow in urging a more “lifelike art.”  This has profound implications for art education.”  

-Dr. Jerome Hausman, Arts and Activities

“If Jacques Derrida had not preceded him, Alexenberg would be the Jewish Marshall McLuhan….  Alexenberg’s art and scholarship represents some of the most innovative work being made in both the Jewish and non-Jewish art worlds.”

- Menachem Wecker, Forward

“Alexenberg’s dynamic interplay of insider/outsider methodologies and exploration of the multiple relationships that exist between, art, technology, and culture today is the highlight of this text.  His combination of practice-based outcomes with scholarly negotiation of the topic presents a distinctive character to this research.”

 - Dr. Vince Dzeikan, New Media & Society



Postmodern Paradigm Shift: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness

Hebraic consciousness is compared with Hellenistic consciousness through analysis of the Guggenheim Museums of Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry and the biblical design of the Tabernacle.  The down-to-earth spirituality of Judaism is explored by engaging the Bible in a playful spirit that reveals its significance through multiple perspectives.  Art derived from Jewish thought and experience combines pride in roots while reaching out globally to show how cultural differences shed light on basic human similarities.  The creation of monumental works of environmental art through the intergenerational collaboration of the Jewish, Hispanic, and African-American communities in Miami exemplifies this postmodern sprit.

            Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum

            Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum

            Hebraic Consciousness and Postmodernism

            Deep Roots and Globalization

            Down-to-Earth Spirituality

            Multiple Perspectives

            Talmud and the Internet

            Engaging the Bible in a Playful Spirit

            Intergenerational Collaboration in Polycultural Art

Chapter 1

Semiotic Perspective: Redefining Art in a Digital Age

Semiotics, the theory of signs and how they create significance, provides a conceptual framework for redefining art in the postmodern era.  It creates categories of representational and presentational art forms, from Hellenistic iconic representation to Hebraic dialogic presentation, from art representing the past to art that creates meaning in the present and future.  The common media ecology of the Talmud and the Internet provides clues to the confluence between the deep structure of Jewish consciousness and the worldview emerging in the digital age.          

            From Representational to Presentational Art

            Iconic Art: Resemblance

            Symbolic Art: Consensus

            Indexic Art: Documentation

            Identic Art: Being

            Prioric Art: Proposing

            Dialogic Art: Interacting

Chapter 2

Morphological Perspective: Space-Time Structures of Visual Culture

Morphological hermeneutics is used as a method for studying civilizations as structures of consciousness.  The comparison of space-time morphologies in mythological, logical, and ecological cultures traces how postmodernism developed art forms that mirror the structure of Jewish consciousness.  It explores the origins of ecological perspective in art and science that can lead from deconstruction to reconstruction in postmodern theory and practice.  Morphological analysis of Jewish visual culture focuses on the biblical injunction to break open the corners of a rectangular garment with four fringes (tzitzit) tied with knots, spirals, and branches.  Two exemplary sets of conceptual and environmental artworks derived from this injunction are discussed.

            Latent Structure and Transformative Processes

            Alternative Perspectives

            Mythological Perspective

            Logical Perspective

            Ecological Perspective

            Origins of Ecological Perspective in Science

            Origins of Ecological Perspective in Modern Art

            From Deconstruction to Reconstruction

            Biblical Fringes: Morphological Analysis of Visual Culture

            Four Wings of America: Art as Visual Midrash

            Sky Art: From Munich to the Tzin Wilderness

Chapter 3

Kabbalistic Perspective: Creative Process in Art and Science

Semiotic and morphological analyses are methodologies derived from a Hellenistic structure of consciousness.  Since methodologies for studying art and culture are not neutral but are themselves cultural constructs, the chapters on kabbalistic and halakhic perspectives introduce alternative methodologies that are distinctively Jewish. These Jewish methodologies provide fresh viewpoints for understanding the significance of postmodern art forms in a digital era.  In contrast to Hellenistic thought that manipulates abstract concepts, Hebraic thought uses imagery concepts drawn from of everyday life experiences, concepts that are concrete yet metaphorical. The kabbalistic perspective provides a symbolic language and conceptual schema for exploring two parallel creative processes – human and divine.  The empirical data illuminating this model of creativity stems from my interviews of prominent artists and scientists and my own creative experiences as an artist.

            Spiritual Bits and Bytes

            Biblical Roots of Kabbalah

            Ten Sephirot of Creative Process

            Digitized Homage to Rembrandt

            Cyberangels and AT&T

            Creativity in Art and Science

            Pathways to Beauty

            Choose Life: Compassion to Beauty

            Righteousness: Strength to Beauty

            Creative Renewal: Beauty to Success

            Goodness: Beauty to Gracefulness

Chapter 4

Halakhic Perspectives: Creating a Beautiful Life

The halakhic perspective moves beyond religion and science to create a methodology that draws spirituality down into our gross material world to beautify our lives.  Creative process is highly prized in Jewish life only if it leads to relating to others with loving-kindness while continually renewing the old and sanctifying the new.  The dangers of human creative endeavors leading to evil results are explored by relating the biblical accounts of the Tower of Babel and Sodom to Italian Futurist fascism and the Islamist terrorism of 9/11 as the most monumental performance art of the 21st century.  Art exploring halakhic values of beautifying our deeds, Torah study, and compassion are exemplified by the exhibition created at MIT on the spiritual dimensions of the electronic age and responsive artwork that brings tactile sight to blind people through digital technologies.   

            Beyond Religion and Science

            Lessons from 9/11: Choose Life not Death

            Tower of Babel: Disastrous Creativity 

            Eruv at Sodom: Honoring Human Diversity

            Beautifying Actions: Adding Light to the World  

            LightsOROT at MIT: Learning Torah Through Art

            Responsive Art in a Digital Age