On and Beyond Symbolism


by Chaim Bezalel

     The law today is the law of lawlessness. The cult of the anti-hero, presented in film and fiction, leads us to
believe that there is no connection between character and action. Without motive, chance and circumstance are all.
For example, the recent film Hero portrays the rescuer of the passengers and crew of a downed aircraft as a
passerby, in fact a perpetual passerby, a bum, or hobo, or homeless person, to be politically correct, while the man
who gets the credit and the reward is a good-looking impostor. This is telling us that our heros are merely our own
projections, irregardless of true merit.
     Our present time has witnessed the death and disgrace of every kind of orthodoxy: religious; nationalist;
socialist; national-socialist; etc. The rise of fundamentalism, tribalism, and even neo-Nazism, are only reactions
against the general trend of the breakdown of ideology. That is what our anti-heroic art is telling us. It is the end of
romanticism, the end of idealism. This has been going on, however, since the First World War, and perhaps it is
time for something new.
     I have tremendous admiration for Modern Art, from Cubism to Pop, all of which challenged our assumptions
about reality, its form and conventions. Abstraction served its purpose, to shake us up, to stand us on our heads
and proclaim that the world is upside down. The question is, where do we go from here? To neo-classicism?
Neo-anything is just a stop-gap measure, until something real comes along. Photorealism? Photo-realistic painting
is so heavily laden with psychology or nostolgia, that it is not really about the subject at all, it is all about
subjectivity. Looking at Chuck Close's huge, unsmiling close-ups of his friends, blemishes and all, we appreciate
them as Close's own projections, which they literally were, through an overhead projector onto the canvas, before
he painted them. The camera, and mass media which has followed in its wake have had a huge influence on our
perceptions. Telelvision, advertising, and computers rely heavily on icons, which are abbreviated graphic symbols
which, through broad dissemination, become associated with a product, or thing. Putting a designer label, for
example, on a plain white t-shirt is like the emperor's new clothes. Because of the prevelence of icons today, one
could say that we live in an iconograhic era. The art of the late Keith Haring, who got his start as a subway grafitti
artist, is an exercise in creating an entire iconographic code. The danger with icons, of course, is when icons are
confused with the real thing. Then, we need some iconoclasts to smash them.
     Perhaps aesthetic trends, instead of progressing, merely swing back and forth between two poles. The poles,
as we may call them today, are realism (or any form of classicism) which tends towards perspective vs. abstraction
(whether impressionistic, expressionistic, or cubist) which tends towards flatness. Byzantine art was flat and
iconographic. It relied on widely disseminated symbols, which at that time were religious. The cave paintings at
Lascaux are also iconographic, not because they are primitive, but because, I believe, they are religious and
symbolic.Perspective on the other hand, tries to simulate what is perceived by the eyes and brain in an objective,
verifiable, naturalistic, if superficial way. I use the word naturalistic because practitioners of the art of perspective
are continually seeking universal forms in nature, such as the golden mean. It is an expression in which the world is
basically, to borrow a word from computer programmers, user-friendly or sensible. While abstraction is an
expression in which the artist asks, and causes the audience to ask, "What is truth?"
     Good question. At first, to the naive, things are simply what they appear to be. Then we develop a skeptical,
critical faculty to the extent that nothing is at it appears to be. Finally, if we progress, we reach a point where we
recognize that things may or may not be what they appear, and it is not so simple. When I studied film in college, we
examined this paradox of illusion vs. reality, complexity vs. simplicity. Even in a documentary film, no matter how
the film-maker tries to make himself a fly on the wall, he is, nevertheless, in some way intruding into the situation
and therefore changing it some extent. This realization caused various reactions. In some cases, the filmaker would
let a hand-held camera follow the action for long periods without cutting or editing. This became known as cinema
verite (cinema truth). In some ways, cinema verite drew more attention to itself and therefore became itself
intrusive.
     This one-shot technique was carried to its ultimate extreme by artist Andy Warhol. It no longer became
necessary to view the film, since nobody would be expected to sit through an eight hour film of somebody sleeping.
In effect, it was a form of dada, or anti-art. An eight hour film of a sleeping man is abstract because it is not in the
seeing that the idea is put forward, but perhaps in the telling. Overused, these gimmicks become like elephant
jokes, amusing but adolescent. Warhol was playing with the idea of selectivity. Traditionally, the artist selects
material by focusing, by editing, by any and all means at his disposal. This is the creative process. If there is no
selectivity (or presumably none) it is another way of divorcing character from action. As he himself speculated,
someday everyone will be famous for five minutes. It doesn't matter what you do. Warhol and his fellow creators of
pop-art were not exponents of popular culture. That were mocking it, putting it on a pedestal, and therefore at a
distance. This was a return of dada art, which has been described as "non-art."
     Popular culture, on the other hand was represented by the hippie movement, whose tenets of faith were one
by one co-opted by the larger society. The hippie movement was basically a neo-romantic movement, complete with
its "back to nature" motif, which had been promulgated in an earlier manifestation by Rousseau, Thoreau, and
Wordsworth, to name a few. Romanticism always contains pantheistic elements, which in the 60's were expressed
through religious eclecticism (especially Eastern religions), while a century ago, the same impulse gave rise to new
religious movements such as Transcendentalism, and even Chasidism and other forms of pietism including
Methodism. Romantic revivals follow periods characterized by the abscence of passion and an overemphasis on the
intellect. Thus the notion of the "noble savage" emerges as the model of man at one with nature. In the 60's, the
culture of the American Indian enjoyed a revival among upper-middle class urban and suburban youth.
     Almost 210 years ago, Nachman of Breslav, the great-grandson of the founder of Chasidism, first
encountered the world of nature when he was married at the age of fourteen and moved from the city to a village
where his father-in-law dwelt. Martin Buber describes his experience:
     "A thousand year heritage of strangeness to nature had held his soul in bonds. And now, as in a magical
realm, instead of the pale-yellow walls of the streets, forest greenery and forest blooms surrounded him; the walls
of his spiritual ghetto tumbled down at once upon contact with the power of growing things...At that time there took
shape in him the teaching of the service in nature that he later proclaimed, ever again and with ever new praises, to
his disciples.
     "'When a man becomes worthy,' he said to them,'to hear the songs of the plants, how each plant speaks its
song to God, how beautiful and how sweet it is to hear their singing'"(pp.23-24; TheTales of Rabbi Nachman;
Martin Buber; Souvenir Press Ltd., London)
     To apply the nomenclature of Carl Jung, Romanticism is the emergence of the anima, or feminine aspect, into
the collective unconscious. However, it must be remembered that this female godhead includes not only certain
expressions of love, but also certain expressions of death.
     Western tradition, more specifically the Judeo-Christian tradition, has promulgated the importance of the
individual, and therefore of character and its moral development. However, twentieth century art has been one big
reaction against Western, religiously sanctioned principles and toward other world views such as African or Asian.
The artist has replaced the mystic with his schools, sects, and codes. The mystic sees reality as full of endless
possibilities, endless combinations and potentialities. For example, Kabbalists see the very letters of the Torah as
arranged in there present order only as one possible combination, and that largely an accommodation to a fallen
world in a state of entropy. The true essence of the Torah is described as black fire and white fire. Is this not
repeated in abstract art which in its extreme produces work like white on white and black on black?
     If indeed the artist serves the function of the mystic in modern society, what is that function? Religion
provides an order, a purpose, and an explanation of the inherent pain of living. Where justice may seem lacking in
the world, religion teaches that wickedness will be punished and righteousness rewarded. When religion
degenerates into mere form and no longer provides the comfort or the answers, it is time for a renewal. This was
the role of the prophets in the Bible, of the Jewish revival movements in Spain and Safed, and later in Russia and
Poland. This also holds true with the founding of many Christian denominations. The mystic uses tradition only as a
loose infrastructure upon which to hang his own revolutionary interpretation.
     The artist, like the mystic, plays a role in his society which is partly subversive. This connection of abstract
art and mysticism is more than just a metaphor. Picasso said that to him, painting was magic whereby he combatted
evil. The mystical antecedents of modern art are not western or monotheistic. Modern art is shamanistic. In its
attempt to portray not the external, but the inner reality of things, it both performs and itself undergoes apotheosis.
That is the meaning of art for art's sake. The object itself is imbued with magical properties, and so its value
ascends toward pricelessness. (In ancient Babylon, it was the priests who were given authority to coin money.) In
what way does a painting by Kandinsky, for instance, contain magic? As with all magic, there are levels of
initiation, and the non-initiated cannot participate, but can only rely on the say-so of the clerisy. Art has always
been mixed in with religion because of the former's creative function. The ability to objectify anything that can be
imagined has been invaluable to religion and, in our secular, humanistic world, has turned art into religion.
     What is the dogma of this religion? To be precise, it is the law of lawlessness. But if forced to name one basic
law in art, I would have to say originality. This can also be called individuality, but once you assemble a million
"rebels without a cause," you have a cause already. This brings me to a personal challenge. How do I, as an artist,
express my own individuality in this paradoxical, information glutted age. As a visual artist, I have been involved in
a collaboration for the past six years with Yonnah Ben Levy. We have even combined our last names for our joint
work under the signature of Bezalel-Levy. I must admit that some acquaintances, even some close acquaintances,
think that I am a certain Mr. Levy, which I am not. She's Levy; I'm Bezalel. But who cares? What began as a
collage of our individual contributions has become, more and more, a single, seamless fabric. In our case, we are
also a couple, and this adds a sexual, though not necessarily erotic, dimension. In combining our talent and vision,
we are joining masculine and feminine, if, indeed such distinctions play a role in creativity. Although we also work
alone in our respective disciplines, we feel that this strengthens the collaboration. I am a photographer and writer,
and she a painter, sculptress and ceramicist. So far, we have combined photography and painting in various ways.
     I had always been interested in collaboration, perhaps as a result of my film training. Music, too, is often a
collaborative medium. It is only in the field of the plastic arts that the cult of the individual has remained
unchallenged. Artists have cultivated the mystique of the misunderstood loner. What interests me about
collaborations in general is that they are multidimensional. They related not only to the subject, nor only to the
relationship of the self to the subject, but, in addition, they relate to the other collaborators. In short, collaboration
is about relationships. I remember being struck by this when, as a child, I saw a film of a jam session among jazz
musicians, how they spurred each other on to higher and higher levels of improvisation.
     Most recently, I have been photographing Arabic movies on the television screen. I began several years ago
when, during a hamsin (heat wave) our reception phased out of Israel Television and phased into Egyptian
broadcasts. It was like a window into our neighbors' world. I then chose my favorite images and blew them up onto
large sheets to ricepaper. At that point, she takes over, painting the printed image however she wishes. She can
alter color or line, but also strives to retain the integrity of the vision. She usually prefers to perform her work when
I am not looking over her shoulder. When I was not satisfied with the expression on a belly-dancer's mouth, for
example, and nothing she could do could make me satisfied, she finally took a black pastel crayon and drew a slash
across the mouth; then she crumpled up the entire painting. Fortunately, ricepaper is extremely resilient. I picked it
up, ironed it out on the ironing board, took a red pastel crayon and began reapplying the mouth like lipstick, which
she then completed. In the next painting, however, Belly-dancer II , no mouth was forthcoming. She said it wasn't
there, and she didn't choose to add it. Not to say that she's the temperamental one.
     Artists generally marry one of three types: the patron; the muse; or another artist. Each has its dangers. In
the case of the patron, the rewards are obvious. The patron works or shares an inheritance or wealth and influence
so that the artist can emerge. The danger is that the artist finally emerges and no longer needs the patron. Type
two: the muse. The muse is inspiring and exciting. A director marries his star. The problem is, the muse is fleeting.
The third relationship sometimes works very well, if both artists respect and encourage each other, that is is they
are patron, muse and companion to each other, which calls for a lot of versatility. The biggest danger in such a
setup is professional jealousy. Both artists must have a will to keep growing, as individuals as well as in
partnership. As Yonnah says, we're resonsible for the depth, not the breadth of appeal of our work. Only time will
tell if our own efforts have integrity and meaning.