The story of artist Mel Alexenberg's quest along the vibrant interface between multiple fields - art/science/technology/culture, multiple roles - artist/researcher/teacher/writer - and multiple identities - Jewish/Israeli/American/Global. His artwork and writing are presented here.
28 July 2016
Ancient Idol’s Foot Unearthed in Israel and Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes”
A foot broken off from a life-size sculpture was
unearthed on Monday, July 25, 2016, at the archeological dig at Tel Hazor,
north of the Sea of Galilee.This large
limestone foot with an Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription on its base was
discovered by an American volunteer at the excavation, a key site from the
Professor Amnon Ben-Tor of the Hebrew University’s
Institute of Archeology said that it was most likely from a temple of the
Egyptian god Ptah.He added that the
deliberate mutilation of statues in the 13th century BCE commonly
accompanied the conquest of towns in Canaan (1 Samuel 5:1-4 and Isaiah
The Torah portion Mattot/Tribes (Numbers
30:2-32:42) read in synagogues in Israel this week and next week in USA relates
to this discovery of an idol fragment.
The Talmud asks the question, “In what context is a foot
or hand fragment of an idol considered idolatrous?” Exploring Andy Warhol’s
artwork “Brillo Boxes” in relation to real Brillo boxes in a supermarket aisle
can help us appreciate the centuries-old Talmudic dialogue about idolatry in
contemporary terms.The discussion below
is based on the “Numbers: Aesthetic Peace” and the “Look Beyond the
Image” chapters in my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your
“None of the men over 20 years old who left Egypt will
see the land that I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob since they did not
follow me wholeheartedly.The only
exceptions will be Calev son of Yefuneh, the independent one, and Joshua son of
Nun.” (Numbers 32:11-12)
“God said, ‘The only exception will be My servant
Calev, since he showed a different spirit and followed Me wholeheartedly.I will bring him to the land that he
explored, and his descendants will possess it.’" (Numbers 14:24)
Moses brought the Torah to a band of slaves living for
centuries in Egypt’s idolatrous culture.
The Torah today was brought to Israel by Jews after
millennia scattered among scores of alien and hostile cultures.
Calev's different spirit and independent thought is
sorely needed by Calev's descendants who have resettled the Land of Israel in
Jews are called “Jews” since they are from the tribe of
Judah, Calev’s tribe.
Ten of the spies feared that entering Canaan would rob
them of a purely spiritual life and force upon them the drudgery left behind in
Those Israelites who desired a life of Torah study
divorced from enacting Torah in the everyday world were sentenced to die in the
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that "The miracles
which sustained the Jews in the wilderness were not the apex of spiritual
"They were only a preparation for the real task:
taking possession of the Land of Israel and making it a holy land."
"The purpose of life lived in Torah is not the
elevation of the soul; it is the sanctification of the world."
Only Joshua and Calev with his "different
spirit" could envision holy sparks emerging from commonplace tasks and
Calev saw that the same activities forced on slaves in
Egypt could be transformed into acts of spiritual significance when done
SEEING IS NOT ENOUGH
My creative work, teaching and research as artist, art
professor at Columbia University and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced
Visual Studies has made me understand that seeing is not just visual
perception, it is conceptual construction.What is seen gains its significance from the context in which it is seen.
Concept and context move seeing beyond a
simple visual experience.
My research and teaching art in Jewish thought and
aesthetic education as professor at Ariel and Bar-Ilan universities has given
me the realization that new art forms in a networked world are redefining art
in ways related to Jewish thought and experience.I explore the “different spirit” emerging
from the breakdown of the Renaissance definition of art in my books The
Future of Art in Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect
Books/University of Chicago Press)http://future-of-art.com
and in Hebrew Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art.
In his ground-breaking book Beyond the Brillo Box: The
Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, my Columbia University
colleague, philosophy professor Arthur Danto emphasizes that what makes the
difference between art and non-art is not visual but conceptual.He writes: “The eye, so prized an aesthetic
organ when it was felt that the difference between art and non-art was visible,
was philosophically of no use whatever when the differences proved instead to
Danto describes how visual arts came to an end and were
transformed into conceptual art at Andy Warhol’s 1964 exhibition at the Stable
Gallery in New York.In the art gallery,
Warhol stacked boxes on which he had screen-printed the Brillo logo. They
looked identical to the cartons of Brillo soap pads that we see in supermarket
aisles. We could no longer see the difference between “Brillo Boxes” (the work
of art) and Brillo boxes (the mere real things). What Warhol taught was that
there is no way of telling the difference by merely looking. The history of
Western art as a progression of one visually discernible art style superseding
a previous style came to an end.
I believe that what we are witnessing is not the end of
art, but the end of art derived from a Jewish structure of consciousness. The
contemporary redefinition of art is congruent with a Hebraic biblical
consciousness as expressed in the Talmud. Danto’s radical new proposal that
concept and context rather than visual appearance gives meaning to images and
objects was discussed millennia ago by rabbis dealing with idolatry and Greek
aesthetics.Their discussion is found in
the Talmud’s tractate on idolatry Avodah Zarah “Strange Worship.”The Talmud is a 5,894 page compendium of
Jewish law and lore that has a tractate about idolatry, what God isn’t, but
none on knowing God, what God is.
The rabbis explored whether found fragments of a statue
such as a hand or foot are prohibited or permitted.Can you pick these parts of an idol up and
place them in your home as a decoration?They concluded that if you see an idol worshiper shatter the statue, it
is as if he nullified it as an idol.It
is, therefore, permitted.However, if
the statue was broken by a Jew who never considered it to be an idol, it is
prohibited.The most interesting
argument deals with an idol that fell down by itself and broke.Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish reasoned, the hand or
foot are permitted because the owner of the idol annuls it by saying, “If it
could not save itself, so how could it save me.”Both the permitted and prohibited idol parts
look exactly the same, indeed they are the same hand or foot.Concept and context decide what cannot be
decided by the visual sense alone.
There are many other examples throughout the Talmud that
emphasize that seeing is not enough.In
the same tractate on strange worship, the pagan Greek Proclos puts a question
to Rabbi Gamliel who was bathing in a pool in front a large statute of Aphrodite.
“If your Torah forbids idolatry, why are you bathing in the Bath of Aphrodite?”
The rabbi answered, “I did not come into her domain.She came into mine.” If the statue of
Aphrodite was erected and then a pool was made to honor her, it would be forbidden
for a Jew to bathe there. However, if the pool was made first and the statue
was placed there as an adornment, then it is permitted.The difference is invisible.
Concept and context determine meaning in the case of an
idol’s foot and the statute of Aphrodite, like Pop art Brillo boxes in an art
gallery rather than in a supermarket or Minimalist art plywood panels hanging
in a museum rather than stacked in a lumberyard. The visual sense alone cannot
discern between art and non-art today or between idol and mere decoration
yesterday. Significance is contextual
and conceptual rather than merely visual.