Space-Time Structures of Digital Visual Culture: Paradigm Shift from Hellenistic to Hebraic Roots of Western Civilization

Mel Alexenberg

Chapter in the book: Inter/sections/Inter/actions: Art Education in a Digital Visual Culture, Robert Sweeny (ed.), Reston, VA: National Art Education Association, 2011

Experiencing digital visual culture is to experience an emerging worldview that stands in stark contrast with an older worldview that has dominated Western visual culture until the rise of modernism.  Digital visual culture reveals a paradigm shift from the space-time structures of ancient Greece revived in Renaissance Europe to the space-time structures of the Hebraic roots of Western culture emerging in our networked world.  In this chapter, Hebraic origins of this profound contemporary paradigm shift in visual culture are explored in relation to the conceptual and contextual impact of media, from Talmud to Internet, and of architecture, from Wright to Gehry. Fresh directions in art education flow from this paradigm shift in our experience of space and time along the dynamic and diaphanous interface between real space and cyberspace.            

In his seminal book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (1960), Norwegian theologian Thorleif Boman contrasts the static, peaceful, moderate, and passive Greek thought with the dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and action-centered characteristics of Hebraic thought.  Winston Churchill (1951) points out: “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….  Their messages in religion, philosophy, and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture.” (Churchill, p. 532)   

The Medium is the Message

“Visual culture opens up an entire world of intertextuality in which images, sounds and special delineations are read on to and through one another, leading ever-accruing layers of meanings and of subjective responses.” (Rogoff 2002, p. 24)  Major media systems in Jewish visual culture and digital visual culture share a common space-time structure that opens up new worlds of intertextuality.  Both the multilinear typographical design of the Talmud, the major work of Jewish law and lore, and hypertext linking in the design of the Internet are structured so that they facilitate and encourage creative, associative, and multiple perspectives.   The single-point perspective of Hellenistic consciousness revealed through Renaissance art and the unilinear structure of the proto-industrial age Gutenberg Bible produce an obsolete structure of consciousness alien in a networked world. 

Like the Internet, the branching and rhizome-like structure of the Talmud has no beginning and no end.  The multiple patches of text on each page are the recorded dialogue of generations of scholars that come to life in the vivid spontaneity of contemporary learners engaging these scholars and each other in searching for significance of past explorations for present and future actions.  Studying these non-sequential multilinear tractates takes place in active noisy learning environments, quite different from the enforced quiet of a library for linear books.  These traditional sites for creative learning in real space branch out through cyberspace to extend the worldwide community of learners.  Fresh directions for art can be derived from the dynamic, interactive, and multidirectional structure of an ancient culture echoed in digital visual culture of the future.  (Alexenberg 2004)

When I was professor of art and education at Columbia University, technoprophet Marshall McLuhan came down from Toronto to lecture.  He talked about how the linear pattern of information resulting from print technology limited the thought patterns of people who learned from printed books.  Word follows word, line follows line, paragraph follows paragraph, page follows page, chapter follows chapter, in a single necessary order from the first page to last.  Learning through a medium that is a one-way street prevented creative, flexible, associative, open-ended, multidirectional, and multidimensional thought.  Instead of just being authoritative, books became authoritarian, demanding thinking in straight lines from a fixed point of view.  The book medium became a stronger message than its content.  Designed to be read in privacy, in seclusion from others, the book ended dialogue. It conferred the values of isolation, detachment, passivity, and non-involvement.  (McLuhan 1969, 1994)

I invited McLuhan to my office to show him how the Hebraic dialogic mindset, which could not tolerate unidirectional thought, used print technology to design multilinear books.  I took a volume of Talmud off my shelf and showed him non-linear pages designed in 16th century Venice (see Figure 1). “The Talmud is thus the recorded dialogue of generations of scholars.  It has all the characteristics of a living dialogue.  Freshness, vivid spontaneity, and acute awareness of every subject permeate every argument and discussion.  The spirit of life breathes on every single page.” (Steinsalz 1989, p. 9)  It is not a set of books to be read in quiet solitude.  We give life and continuity to the dialogue that began millennia ago by engaging the hundreds of voices talking across the folio pages in active dialogue with a learning partner.  The two learners, a hevrutah, enter a page and move around within it while arguing with each other, calling for support from all the scholars before them and proposing their own innovative ideas. They can begin their learning on any of its 5,894 pages.  Each student in the dialogic dyad “longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original.  The study of Torah, by definition, means gleaning new, creative insights from the Torah.” (Soloveitchik 1983, p. 99)  The multivolume Talmud has no beginning and no end.  The hevrutah can jump around within a page, between pages, between different Talmud tractates, bring to bear the Bible, kabbalistic texts, or any other sources, ancient and modern.  A study hall in a yeshiva filled with many learning teams is a busy, dynamic, noisy environment, quite different from the eerie silence of a library for linear books.

From Talmud to Internet

When I began surfing the World Wide Web, it seemed a familiar place to me.  I felt I had been there before.  Talmud study had prepared me for its vast multidirectional options, hyperlinking and its non-sequential organization.  I felt at home seeing home pages that had an uncanny resemblance to Talmud pages.  As a member of the panel, “Toward an Aesthetic for the 21st Century: Networking, Hypermedia, and Planetary Creativity,” at the 1990 conference of the College Art Association, I explored this confluence between traditional Jewish media experiences and encountering the emerging Internet. A decade later, Jonathan Rosen wrote in The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey between Worlds:

I can’t help feeling that in certain respects the Internet has a lot in common with the Talmud.  The Rabbis referred to the Talmud as a yam, a sea – and though one is hardly intended to ‘surf’ the Talmud, something more than oceanic metaphors links the two verbal universes.  Vastness and an uncategorizable nature are in part what define them both….  The Hebrew word for tractate is masechet, which means, literally, “webbing.”  As with the World Wide Web, only the metaphor of the loom, ancient and inclusive, captures the reach and the randomness, the infinite interconnectedness of words….  I take comfort in thinking that a modern technological medium echoes an ancient one. (Rosen 2000, pp. 7, 8, 11)

Canadian professor Eliezer Segal (2008) goes one step further.  He uses the new medium to explicate the old.  He created an interactive digital Image-Map of the typographic design of a typical Talmud page to serve as a port of departure on a voyage through centuries of vital dialogue.  The visitor to his website can click on any portion of the Talmud page image and be linked to a description of that patch of text.  He explains the contents and purposes of the text in English, also describing when and where that patch of text was composed.

In the on-line magazine, Computer-Mediated Communication, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor David Porush writes that the Talmud is an early example of hypertext and the Wikipedia process of multiple authorships in an interactive global community. 

A page of Talmud is structured around a single text surrounded by concentric layers of commentary and commentary on commentary.  By form and content, it announces the unfinished quality of constructing knowledge and the collective construction of shared values.  Even in its layout on the page, the Talmud suggests a kind of time and space destroying hypertextual symposium rather than an authoritative, linear, and coherent pronouncement with a beginning and ending written by a solitary author who owns the words therein…. The notion of private self, or the notion of singular origin of knowledge, pales into insignificance in the face of this talmudic-hypertextual-Internet-like vision of communally-constructed knowledge.  (Porush 1995)

Two Guggenheim Museums

Complementing our exploration of the media ecology of the Talmud and the Internet, two major works of American architecture embody the contemporary confluence between Hebraic consciousness and the space-time structure of visual culture in the emerging digital world.  The paradigm shift from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic roots of Western culture is exemplified by the two Guggenheim art museums – Frank Lloyd Wright’s museum in New York and Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao, Spain.  

In his study of Hebrew thought compared to Greek, Boman explains that biblical passages concerned with the built environment always describe plans for construction without any description of the appearance of the finished structure.   Noah’s ark is presented as a detailed building plan.  How the ark looked when it set sail is never described.  The Bible has exquisitely detailed construction instructions for the Tabernacle without any word picture of the appearance of the completed structure.  Indeed, the Tabernacle was made of modular parts, came apart like Lego, was set on a wagon, moved through the desert from site to site, deconstructed and reconstructed each time.  Its active life was quite different from the immovable monumental marble temples on the Acropolis. (Alexenberg 2003)

A Hebraic structure of consciousness in architecture emphasizes temporal processes in which space is actively engaged by human community rather than presenting a harmoniously stable form in space.  Architectural theorist, Bruno Zevi, compares the Hebraic and Greek attitudes toward architecture in his essay, “Hebraism and the Concept of Space-Time in Art.”

For the Greeks a building means a house-object or a temple-object.  For the Jews it is the object-as-used, a living place or a gathering place.  As a result, architecture taking its inspiration from Hellenic thought is based on colonnades, proportions, refined moulding, a composite vision according to which nothing may be added or eliminated, a structure defined once and for all.  An architecture taking its inspiration from Hebrew thought is the diametric opposite.  It is an organic architecture, fully alive, adapted to the needs of those who dwell within, capable of growth and development, free of formalistic taboo, free of symmetry, alignments, fixed relationships between filled and empty areas, free from the dogmas of perspective, in short, an architecture whose only rule, whose only order is change.  (Zevi 1983, p 165)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum

In Frank Lloyd Wright: A Study in Architectural Content, art historian Norris Kelly Smith explained Wright’s originality and genius in terms of Boman’s comparison between Hebrew and Greek patterns of thought.  Since Wright was well versed in the Bible as the son of a Unitarian minister, he internalized the biblical message of freeing humanity from enslavement in closed spaces and expressed this freedom in his architectural design.  Smith emphasizes that Wright imbued the field of architecture, conditioned by two thousand years of Greco-Roman thought, with Hebrew thought.  Wright was critical of the neo-classical rhetoric employed by American architects who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He sought to create a new architecture to echo the biblical call inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). He wanted American architecture to assert its cultural independence from Europe.

It is significant that the nation founded on the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” became the center of the shift from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic worldview in the arts.  Dynamic forms of art and architecture symbolizing life and liberty blossomed on American soil.  Frank Lloyd Wright exemplified this blossoming. His spiral museum invites a living response.  When I had asked my children what they remembered most from their visits to the New York Guggenheim, they enthusiastically reminisced about running down the ramp and being high up looking over the fence into the center atrium.  It is not a box for rectangular pictures set in static space, but a lively place to be engaged over time. The exhibitions I saw there that worked best were shows about movement:  Alexander Calder’s mobiles were moving around the spiral to create a circus of color. Yaacov Agam’s kinetic and dialogic art changed with the movement of the viewers in his Beyond the Visible show, and Jenny Holzer’s ruby light word messages on a running electronic signboard flashed their way up the spiral ramp. The Art of the Motorcycle exhibition in 1998 was right on the mark.

The spiral is one of the major life forms in nature: from DNA, to a nautilus shell, to the growth pattern of palm fronds.  It is also one of the major symbols of the Hebraic mind.  Jews are called am haSePheR, usually translated “People of the Book.”  But SePheR is a word written in the Torah scroll itself long before the invention of codex type books.  SePheR means spiral scroll.  It is spelled SPR, the root of the word “SPiRal” in numerous languages, ancient and modern. The English words “SPiRitual” and “inSPiRation” share the SRP root from the Latin SPiRare, to breathe.

In Judaism, form gives shape to content.  The medium is an essential part of the message.  Rather than the modernist viewpoint of art as the language of forms, Judaism shares postmodernism’s emphasis on the ideas their forms might disclose (Efland 1996). Weekly portions of the first five books of the Bible in the form of a Torah scroll are read in synagogue. The symbolic significance of the spiral form is so strong that if a Torah scroll is not available in synagogue, the Bible is not publicly read at all.  The exact same words printed in codex book form convey the wrong message.  If the divine message encoded in the Torah is trapped between two rectilinear covers, it loses its life-giving flow.  Form and content join together to symbolize the essence of Jewish values.  The Bible encoded in a flowing scroll form provides a clue as to the nature of biblical consciousness as an open-ended, living system.

Wright’s helicoidal shaping of the Guggenheim Museum’s cavity in New York represents the victory of time over space, that is, the architectural incarnation of Hebrew thought, even more significant because it was fully realized by a non-Jew.  Like Schonberg’s music, Wright’s architecture is based on linguistic polarity, emancipated dissonance, contradiction; it is once expressionistic and rigorous; it applies Einstein’s concept of ‘field;’ it is multidimensional; it extols space by demolishing all fetishes and taboos concerning it, by rendering it fluid, articulated so as to suit man’s ways, weaving a continuum between building and landscape.  In linguistic terms, this means a total restructuring of form, denial of any philosophical a priori, any repressive monumentality: action-architecture, aimed at conquering ever more vast areas of freedom for human behavior. (Zevi 1983, p 165)

Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum

In creating the Bilbao Guggenhiem, Frank Gehry moved beyond Wright to a more powerful realization of the Hebraic mindset that Boman describes as “dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and sometimes quite explosive in kind.”  Gehry told the story about his grandmother buying fish and keeping them in the bathtub to prepare gefilte fish for the Sabbath meal.  He would observe the vigorous body motions of swimming fish seen from above.  This gave Gehry his vocabulary for the dynamic shape of his museum.  Fish are one with their environment.  They must stay in constant motion in it to stay alive. Oxygen carrying water must be kept moving over their gills for them to breathe.  To stop motion is to die.

Gehry’s method of working is creative play with dynamic forms using digital imaging systems.  He starts with spontaneous scribble sketches that become forms that he moves and reshapes in a dynamic interplay between computer-generated 3D CAD graphic models and physical models in real space. 

As he began to shape buildings from mobile parts, his sense of space transcended Cartesian notions.  This special sense defies verbal definition, but it might be compared with the sensation of moving bodies in a medium akin to water. To the extent that his buildings arrest volumes in continuous motion (and transformation), time becomes their formative dimension….. He sets the bodies of his buildings in motion as a choreographer does to his or her dancers.  (Dal Co 1998, pp. 29-30)

As an integral part of education for an architecture of time and motion, Gehry takes his students on ice in full hockey gear to interact with each other and their environment in rapid movement.  Like fish in water, skaters standing still on ice are unstable.  Swift motion creates balance. The same concept of stability in motion is sensed in seeing the “fish-scale” titanium skin on the Bilbao museum that makes it look like a futuristic airplane. Airplanes must move through their air medium in order to fly. Stopping motion in midair leads to crashing and death.  He sets the bodies of his buildings in motion as a choreographer does with dancers.  “One need only observe Gehry’s manner of drawing to gain an immediate impression of his way of thinking: the pen does not so much glide across the page as it dances effortlessly though a continuum of space” (Dal Co 1998, p. 30).  His studio practice appears like a performance rehearsal.  His knowledge of performance art, his collaborations with artists, and his planning with artists led to spaces at the Bilbao Guggenheim uniquely suited for the presentation of alternative forms of art.

Learning in Dynamic Space-Time

When we look back at the twentieth century, we see modernism breaking down the Hellenistic dominance of Eurocentric visual culture.  When we look forward to the 21st century, we begin to experience a new global visual culture in which Hebraic space-time structures (Alexenberg 2006) resonate with ancient worldviews of India (Vidwans 2008) and China (Huang 2008) in dialog with the creative energies of America. 

Fresh directions for art education are emerging from the redefinition of visual culture in a networked world.  We are witnessing a paradigm shift from Hellenistic to Hebraic consciousness, from iconic representation to dialogic presentation, from static image to dynamic process, from passive appreciation to interactive collaboration, and from imitating the creation to imitating the Creator.  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 continuation of the living process of creation itself that is valued in the Hebraic structure of consciousness.  Hebraic space-time, like Web 2.0, suggests new pedagogical strategies that break open frameworks to create a vibrant dialog between multiple realms of discourse through active participation and multiple authorship as in my WikiArtists blog (Alexenberg 2008b).   It makes boundaries between disciplines as permeable as cell membranes that act as vital processes for active interchange of information.  It makes learning an adventuresome romp through a dynamic ecosystem of interrelationships flowing between real space and cyberspace.

An early exemplar of innovative directions for education in Hebraic space-time that I initiated in the 1970’s is “From Science to Art” (Alexenberg 2005, 2008a), an interdisciplinary art education program that I developed at Tel Aviv University for Israeli junior high schools.  It aimed to help learners see a diaphanous world in which fresh relationships between disparate realms of phenomena emerge.  It later formed the core of the interdisciplinary graduate course “Morphodynamics: The Design of Natural Systems” (Alexenberg 2006) that I introduced and taught at Columbia University Teachers College. In the opaque worlds experienced through linear logical thinking, phenomena are trapped within the boundaries of separate disciplines. “From Science to Art” and “Morphodymanics” were designed to develop modes of ecological thinking that perceive interrelationships between phenomena that remain invisible to logical minds by inviting continual questioning.  In units on periodicity and rhythmic structures and on threshold phenomena, hands-on experiments and observations lead to such questions as:  How do you link your fingerprints to op art, topographic maps, ripple tank projections, zebra stripes, supermarket bar codes, prayer shawls, Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat, and your shadow shifting in relation to the rotation of Planet Earth?   What does the generation of electrostatic energy have to do with waiting for a bus, turkey chicks’ feeding patterns, a flash of insight, a shock from a doorknob on a dry day, nerve physiology, biblical narratives, or the cancellation of your Facebook account for spamming?

In “From Science to Art” and “Morphodynamics,” interdisciplinary explorations extend from the units on periodicity and rhythmic structures and on threshold phenomena to units on bilateral and rotational symmetries, stochastic processes and asymmetries, spiral systems and branching systems.  Through experimentation coupled with artistic creation, both children and graduate art education students learned imaginative ways to unify cognitive and affective experiences, time and space concepts, aesthetic values of East and West, human activities and built environments, ancient cultures and our emerging digital visual culture.  They learned to couple cognitive acts of creating relationships/connections/congruencies with concomitant affective responses of joy/amazement/elation.


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About the Author 

Mel Alexenberg is former professor of art and education at Columbia University, head of the art department at Pratt Institute, research fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and dean of visual arts at New World School of the Arts in Miami.  In Israel, he is head of the School of the Arts at Emuna College in Jerusalem and former professor of art and Jewish thought at Bar Ilan University and Ariel University Center.  His artworks exploring digital technologies and global systems are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He is author of The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness and Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art and editor of Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology, and Culture. His blogs can be accessed through links at