Don’t divorce art from morality

A Jew should not distinguish between an evil man and his creative work.

Menahem Alexenberg

THE JERUSALEM POST, December 23, 2003

 Agreeing to honor Daniel Barenboim with the prestigious Wolf Prize at the Knesset is a victory for Hellenism at a time we celebrate its defeat.  Barenboim’s views about the arts and culture represent the antithesis of Jewish values.  Like the Hellenized Jews of two millennia ago, he supports the divorce of art and esthetics from righteousness and ethics and consorts with the enemies of his people.

Daniel Barenboim coauthored a book with Edward Said, an archenemy of Israel who vigorously fought for the destruction of the Jewish State, even attacking Arafat and Oslo as being too accommodating to the Zionists.    In his dialog with Said, Barenboim says, “Anti-Semitism was not invented by Adolf Hitler and it was certainly not invented by Richard Wagner.  It existed for generations and generations and centuries before.  The difference between National Socialism and the earlier forms of anti-Semitism is that the Nazis were the first, to my knowledge, to evolve a systematic plan to exterminate the Jews, the whole people.  And I don’t think, although Wagner’s anti-Semitism is monstrous, that he can be made responsible for that, even though a lot of Nazi thinkers, if you want to call them that, often quoted Wagner as their precursor.” 

The New York Times tells how Barenboim recommends “Joachim Kohler’s chilling and exhaustively researched book Wagner’s Hitler: The Prophet and His Disciple, which makes a persuasive case for its thesis that Hitler based his entire philosophy and the whole Nazi apparatus on ideas explicitly draw from Wagner’s writings and operas.”  Barenboim said, “Hitler arranged death in Wagnerian terms.” 

And with this acknowledgment of Wagner’s role in perpetrating the horrors of the Holocaust, Barenboim has the chutzpah to foist Wagner on Jews in a sovereign Jewish State.

Unlike the sciences that attempt to be independent of cultural differences, the arts are expressions of cultural values.  As the member of the Council of the Wolf Foundation representing the arts, I will propose that new guidelines for the Wolf Prize in the arts be established so that Jewish values are not dishonored.        

Christian theologian Thorlief Boman in his seminal book, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, points out that in contrast to Hellenism that can separate a person from his actions, the Hebraic mind makes no such separation.  In English, as in Greek, it is possible to make distinctions that are not available in Hebrew.  “I am lecturing” is ani martzeh. “I lecture” is also ani martzeh.  And “I am a lecturer” is again ani martzeh.  Action, act, and actor are integrally one.  A person is defined by what he does.  A Jew should not separate an evil man from his esthetic products. 

Hanukkah was not a fight against the aesthetic values of Greece, but rather about their primacy and divorce from morality. 

Judaism honors art when it is preceded by righteousness.  The Hebrew word for Greece, yavan, is spelled yod, vav, nun.  Adding the letter tzadik before yavan transforms it into tzion, Zion.  The letter tzadik represents the tzadik, a righteous person.  Art must be united with righteousness in Judaism.  The shadow side of the creative process is acknowledged in the Bible.  The name of the prototypic artist Betzalel ben Uri ben Hur means “In the Divine Shadow son of Fiery Light son of Freedom.”  An artist’s role is to use his artistic passion and freedom of expression to transform darkness into light as symbolized by the lights of the first menorah forged by Betzalel during our people’s flight from foreign bondage.   

Not only is the “art for art’s sake” attitude of Barenboim alien to Judaism, it is discredited by developments in contemporary arts’ transition from modernism to postmodernism.  The major redefinition of the arts in our digital age represents a paradigm shift from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic roots of Western culture.

In my research, I have found that there is a powerful confluence between new postmodern directions in the arts and Jewish consciousness.

Perhaps this unfortunate choice of honoring Barenboim’s alien viewpoint calls for an appropriate educational response.  In keeping with Education Minister Limor Livnat’s praiseworthy interest in strengthening learning about Judaism and Zionism in Israeli schools, a national center for a new cultural Zionism should be established.  This research and development center would support research on the future of the arts in the Zionist enterprise by exploring the interrelationships between the arts, Jewish thought, and the emerging postmodern digital age.  It would develop curriculum materials for Israeli schools and Jewish schools in the Diaspora, run in-service teacher training courses and workshops, and organize arts events and symposia.

Ahad Ha’am argued against Herzl that the cultural and spiritual renewal of the Jewish People had to precede political actions taken to create a Jewish State.  Ahad Ha’am lost the argument. 

Perhaps we had needed to wait until the radical changes in the definition of the arts in our postmodern digital age became confluent with Jewish values.  These changes can facilitate setting a new agenda for the cultural and spiritual renewal of the Jewish People in its sovereign Jewish State. Like our rekindling the menorah to bring light into the world each Hanukkah, we can rededicate our arts to be art for people’s sake rather than art for art’s sake.

The writer is a member of the Council of the Wolf Foundation, former art professor at Columbia University and research fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.