I’m rereading Chaim Potok’s excellent novel My Name is Asher Lev right now, and last night I stayed up way too late reading. These two passages really caught my attention and merit putting somewhere that I’ll be able to find again.
Then, two pages later.
He said to me one day in the second week of July, “Asher Lev, there are two ways of painting the world. In the whole history of art, there are only these two ways. One is the way of Greece and Africa, which sees the world as a geometric design. The other is the way of Persia and India and China, which sees the world as a flower. Ingres, C�zanne, Picasso paint the world as geometry. Van Gogh, Renoir, Kandinsky, Chagall paint the world as a flower. I am a geometrician. I sculpt cylinders, cubes, triangles, and cones. The world is a structure, and structure to me is geometry. I sculpt geometry. I see the world as hard-edged, filled with lines and angles. And I see it as a wild and raging and hideous, and only occasionally beautiful. The world fills me with disgust more often than it fills me with jooy. Are you listening to me, Asher Lev? The world is a terrible place. I do not sculpt and paint to make the world sacred. I sculpt and paint to give permanence to my feelings about how terrible this world truly is. Nothing is real to me except my own feelings; nothing is true except my own feelings as I see them all around me in my sculpture and paintings. I know these feelings are true, because if they were not true they would make art that is as terrible as the world. You do not understand me yet, Asher Lev. My little Hasid. My sanctifier of the world. My half-naked painter with dangling payos and a paint-smeared skullcap. One day you will understand about the truth of feelings.”
The following week, the third week of July, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We walked through centuries of Byzantine and Western crucifixions. He showed me the development of structure and form and expression, and the handling of pictorial space. I saw crucifixions all the way home and dreamed of crucifixions all through the night. I told him the next day that I did not think I wanted to see any more crucifixions. He became angry. “Asher Lev, you want to go off into a corner somewhere and paint little rabbis in long beards? Then go away and do not waste my time. Go paint your little rabbis. No one will pay attention to you. I am not telling you to paint crucifixions. I am telling you that you must understand what a crucifixion is in art if you want to be a great artist. The crucifixion must be available to you as a form. Do you understand? No, I see you do not understand. In any case, we will see more crucifixions and more resurrections and more nativities and more Greek and Roman gods and more scenes of war and love - because that is the world of art, Asher Lev. And we will see more naked women, and you will learn the reason for the differences between the naked women of Titian and those of Rubens. This is the world you want to make sacred. You had better learn it well first before you begin.”
These passages stand alone - but that last sentence was a dagger to my heart. Do I have the strength to learn the world well? Most Christians do not. They do not see the reason to expose themselves to the horror of the world, but in being afraid to do that, they are never able to speak to that world.
I want to avoid that. It sounds like a long long path, but I’ve already taken the first steps…