Does Art Civilize Us?

This Commentary on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudai was written by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Vice President, American Jewish University.

Photo by Frankie Cordoba on Unsplash

Until very recently, common knowledge maintained that Judaism prohibited works of art.
After all, the Ten Commandments itself contains a prohibition against graven images and the Torah forbids representation of any astral bodies. Modern Jews have simply assumed that Jews never made representations of people, animals, or divine beings because such art would violate our stringent standards against idolatry.
Christians make statues of their object of worship, but we Jews don't. As a result of that religious posture, it is widely affirmed that we also don't make artistic representations of anything, whether or not in a religious context.
That assumption has been safely laid to rest.
Through the work of scholars (such as Erwin Goodenough) and the publication of lavish and beautiful books of Jewish art, it is clear that Judaism cultivated a rich artistic tradition.
Description of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem attest to the delicacy of the artwork there, and the archaeological remains of ancient synagogues reveal rich mosaic floors and elaborately painted murals and walls.
Art plays an essential role in the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the Aron (Ark of the Covenant), and the Menorah (light) inside. Accordingly, Moses introduces the first biblical artist by explaining that "the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel...and has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge."
Impressive credentials indeed! God directly inspires the artist, so that sculpture, architecture, music, and other forms of artistic expression provide a privileged path of religious expression.
Art involves more than merely a desire to make pretty objects. Through the use of color, shape, movement, and sound, people articulate impulses, thoughts, and insights that words alone cannot convey.
Art gives voice to those mute, inaccessible parts of our souls. Art allows us to share the private, to realize and develop inner visions and secret dreams.
Lurking underneath the claim that art can liberate is the more audacious claim that art can civilize.
After all, we don't support opera and museums simply to ventilate an artist's inner longings.
We participate in artistic projects not merely as voyeurs but because we hope to emerge as better, more sensitive human beings.
Does art civilize? Regrettably, no. Or at least, not by itself.
The Romans were among the most esthetically developed and sophisticated people in the world, and also the most ruthless.
Europe developed a culture that valued painting and music, and simultaneously murdered six million Jews.
The same Americans who enslaved millions of African captives also built elegant plantations.
Our rabbis understood that art, by itself, can be either good or bad.
Art permitted the idolatry of the Golden Calf and the sanctity of the Mishkan.
In the words of Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah, "Israel sinned (with the Golden Calf), whereupon Bezalel came and healed the wound (by constructing the Mishkan).”
Art can provide a tool for a sensitive person to cultivate sensitivity. Or it can provide a mask for the callous to conceal abuse.
As always, each human being must first make an existential choice: by what values do we live?
Having chosen, art will heighten the expression of that choice. It will either reinforce a lofty moral commitment, or it will distract us from the suffering of our fellow human beings, deaden us to their cries.
Art will express the choice we have made, but it cannot substitute for the choice itself.

Shabbat Shalom!