This week the conceptual artist Chris Burden died at 69. This may not be news to you, but in many ways, he revolutionized art as we know it by being among the first to use his body as a piece of art. Burden was shot, dropped, kicked down stairs, starved and electrocuted himself for the sake of his art. In his obituary in The New York Times, Burden's contribution is described this way: "Where traditional artists had long depicted images on canvas, he became the canvas - and a highly distressed canvas at that."
Perhaps it was Burden who served as the inspiration for the strangest novel I read this year - or possibly ever, The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. It depicts a family - a couple and two children - who live as works of art, posing and staging bizarre and often dangerous performances in malls and supermarkets to unsuspecting onlookers. They test the limits of performance and of the meaning of family if every moment offers the possibility of being an object of curiosity. Needless to say, this lifestyle was a bit of a strain on the children. "'Great art is difficult,'" Caleb [the Fang son] said. After a few moments, he said, 'But I don't understand why it has to be so difficult sometimes.'"
Since we are soon to read the Ten Commandments on Shavuot, I thought I would focus on the second commandment, the prohibition of idol worship that has largely shaped Judaism's complex relationship with visual art:
"You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments," [Exodus 20:3-6].
Most of the Ten Commandments are pithy and straightforward. Not killing and not bearing false witness seem to require little explanation. Yet our second commandment is lengthy and cumbersome. We are mandated not only to refrain from the worship of an image but the very creation of one. This led writer Cynthia Ozick to the conclusion that this commandment alone put the kibosh on Jewish art: "Where is the Jewish Michelangelo, the Jewish Rembrandt, the Jewish Rodin? He has never come into being. Why?" She ponders why Jews have been influential in so many fields but not in the arena of the visual arts. She boils it down to the second commandment.
This is a gross oversimplification of the commandment and of the history of the relationship between Jews and art. Several chapters after the commandments were revealed at Sinai were Jews told to create a portable sanctuary in the wilderness led by chief artisan Bezalel. This building was to be a spiritual and aesthetically pleasing centerpiece for the ancient Israelite journey home. Aesthetics and their interplay with worship are again important in the building of the First and Second Temples. The problem identified in the biblical text is not making any art but in limiting God to a visual image or even worse, believing that a human being can craft a divine being. That crosses the line into transgressive behavior.
Some scholars believe that it wasn't the second commandment that obstructed Jewish involvement in the plastic arts but a long history of persecution and exile. In other words, it was not theological but practical. Without a country and an autonomous governing structure, it is hard to patronize the arts and help them flourish. The uprooted nature of Jewish life in the Diaspora may have gotten in the way of investing in the beauty of one's surroundings. It's the difference between putting up art in a rental home where you may not be allowed to make any marks on a wall or decorating a permanent home.
Those interested in the subject may want to read Vivian Mann's book, Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts, Richard Cohen's book Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe or Kalman Bland's book, The Artless Jew among many others. These scholars, from different vantage points, flesh out the conversation on what our real rather than perceived notions are about art and the Jews.
It's hard to say how personal performance art is regarded in light of the second commandment. What happens when you become the graven image you are not supposed to worship? If conceptual art of this kind is made to encourage adoration or fixation, it may be a problem. If it is designed to disturb or provoke, it may be fine from a Jewish legal standpoint but lead to the question that became the title of a Tolstoy book of non-fiction: What is art?