Looking for Compelling Beauty in Modern Art
It’s no secret that I tend to wrinkle my nose at modern art. The late 19th century discarded everything that Michelangelo and Bernini held dear, leaving this art historian abandoned to navigate in darkness. Art no longer seemed to lead towards truths and light, but rather into the treacherous waters of desires, needs and fears, and so I mostly stay close to shore. But no true scholar can refuse to put out into the deep for fear of what one might find, and so I make my occasional forays into these currents, delving into specific works or artists. I found a few treasures, learning to love Matisse and appreciate Dalí and even chuckle alongside Marcel Duchamps.
This time Chaim Potok, celebrated modern novelist and rabbi, was my navigator in his novel My Name is Asher Lev. In a certain sense, this book opened my eyes in a way no work of modern art had done before.
Asher Lev has a gift. Art. The reader encounters the five-year-old boy, the son of a prominent member of Brooklyn’s Ladover Hasidic community, who cannot stop drawing. Everything he sees—warmth, suffering, comfort, belonging—is filtered through his pencil. He is born into an exceptionally tight-knit community, but while his home, street, and his neighbors are the focus of his unstoppable pen, he alienates himself more and more because of his gift. The reader feels privileged, however, to visit the devout people of Asher’s community and experience the warmth and sincere concern that the people have for each other.
Potok captures the drive, the need to produce art in a way that not even Condivi did as the official biographer of Michelangelo. Art demands and overwhelms. Asher will lie, steal and hurt those who love him to produce his art, and yet he can’t stop.
He anguishes that it “was horrifying to think that my gift may have been given to me by the source of evil and ugliness. How can evil and ugliness make a gift of beauty?” Forty-five years later, that question remains just as pressing.
His existential struggle is tempered by descriptive moments in which we look through the artist’s eye, making formal decisions for specific effects. A smudge here, an arc there, a bold stroke of color—Asher reveals how the artist chooses through line and color to express a state of mind as opposed to a traditional narrative… and grows to respect those choices.
His need to express himself and his world through art drives him to try new media. It is fascinating to stand in his studio while Asher explores what oil and color or marble sculpting can express. But his need for ever more resonant symbols to represent his world of sacrifice and suffering in it leads him into dangerous waters.
When Asher describes his first trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it brought me back to my own first experience of a museum. Where he sees the myriad ways to make creation visible, I remember reveling in the countless ways of telling stories. But the study of Western art can only bring Asher to an impasse. While his father and the chief rabbi may be able, with difficulty, to turn a blind eye to Asher’s love of figurative art despite Judaism’s traditional discouragement of representational imagery, his attraction to the two main staples of Western art—the nude and Christian iconography—threatens to cleave his family and community apart.
Potok sees that art has become like a religion in the modern era. “Art is not for people who want to make the world holy,” argues Asher’s mentor Jacob Kahn, himself a lapsed Jew. “As an artist, you are responsible to no one and nothing except to yourself and the truth as you see it.” How can Asher, saturated in his faith, keep that faith in a world where artists assert themselves as demi-gods?
Asher, caught between faith and feeling, is unable to stem the creative course that ultimately brings him to represent the greatest image of love, self-sacrifice and suffering of all: the crucifix.
The story poses the question of identity before God and His gift, community and cataclysmic creativity offering a noble perspective on the struggles of the modern artist. I left Chaim Potok’s vivid canvas better able to see the artistry of the modern era, and yet with a sense that one of the greatest casualties of the abandonment of universal truths was art.