A coat of filler is used to smooth a surface that has been weathered by the test of time.
A few days ago, I had the crazy idea of refurbishing my bathroom. I was in front of my damaged wall.
And as I was smoothing my wall with my trowel, the whitish coloured walls that came to mind were those of New York’s M.O.M.A. and Malevich’s monochromes and particularly: White square on a white background.
Malevich was a Russian painter of the Suprematist current (1915) who showed an interest in simple shapes with a geometric and unicoloured character. Suprematism shows the infinite character of space, and the relationship of attraction and rejection of forms. For Malevich, art is a process leading first to sensation.
But it was another of his paintings that evoked the idea of a major moral fault in the painting Black square on a white background found in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
Indeed, thanks to digital technology, the painting revealed that it was hiding two other works but above all, a racist inscription, captioning the painting in its own way then covered by the artist: Negroes fighting in a cellar.
So if we know that Contemporary Art has a duty of subversiveness to question ever further the role of art and all of society, to push back its contours ever further, to what extent does its status make acceptable the confusion that there can be walls between subversiveness and moral fault shocking the public?
Does art lie beyond the moral value and ethics of language?
Lévinas published an article in 1948 in Les Temps Modernes (n° 38) entitled “reality and its shadow“.
In this article, from its title, Levinas makes an announcement and presents Art as a shadow of reality and later as a “caricature of reality”.
From the outset, Levinas describes art as “dogma” and asserts that “artistic expression is based on knowledge“, a superior understanding of reality. Levinas tells us of art that it is seductive and dangerous insofar as the fascination for artistic creation can place the artist in a position of untouchability, beyond any ethical and moral value. Art would give to see without committing itself morally on what it exposes:
This completion does not necessarily justify the academic aesthetics of art for art’s sake, the formula is false insofar as it places art above reality and recognizes no master in it, and it is immoral insofar as it frees the artist from his human duties and assures him of nobility, pretentious and well-to-do.
What then can be said of artists who, focusing exclusively on the aesthetic aspect of their works, do not dwell on their ethical content . , remember it is covered with two coats of paint and is not visible to the public, gives us an interview on the genesis of the work and the state of mind of the artist.
What then of the painting “The Death of Sardanapale” by Delacroix (1827)?
His palace besieged, lying on a superb bed, on top of an immense pyre, Sardanapalus orders his slaves and the officers of the palace to slaughter his wives, his pages, even his favorite horses and dogs; none of the objects which had served his pleasures were to survive him. At the centre of the scene of the killing, Sardanapalus holds the gaze of the spectator. The painting depicts the horror of the scene in a grand style. The aesthetic magnificence then poses a major challenge to the viewer who is easily captivated by the painting.
We can also think of the Dieudonné affair which shook France in the year 2017. This humourist had been producing shows with anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying content for years. Although under the guise of humour, the amoral content of his shows led to the censorship of his shows, several convictions, and the expulsion from the theatre in which he was in residence in November 2017.
The reason for freedom of expression as well as that of a politically incorrect and subversive expression is then put forward by its public, arguing that artistic expression is an end in itself, free from any moral shackles.
Levinas also addresses the position of the viewer by qualifying him as passive because he would be seduced, under the influence of “magic“, become incapable of thinking in order to “admire in silence and in peace, such are the advice of wisdom satisfied before the handsome “.
Reading these lines, one thinks of art as an object of manipulation. The viewer would therefore be passive and uncritical. Art would then be disconnected from any moral value.
The object of art for art ‘s sake would then be to subjugate and deaden the intelligence, the critical and moral sense for the benefit of aesthetic interest alone. Art, still according to Levinas, would then be a harmful thing because it would go beyond ethical criteria in favour of a subversive character.
In this article, Levinas draws a pointed portrait of both the work of art (harmful, manipulation tool) and the spectator (passive and idle).
However, this question of the spectator and the work of art in the Torah is complex and is of course approachable from several angles. The text of Exodus is not so much the image object that is prohibited as the fact of prostrating oneself before them. It is therefore the spectator who makes it his idol status and not the sculpted image itself.
In the same way, initiated in modern art and then largely confirmed in contemporary art, artists have never ceased to question art and its status, leaving the spectator such an active part that it is up to him to decide what makes a work of art.
Thus the sacred art paintings of the Louvre Museum pass from a religious exhibition space to the profane space of a museum, Jackson Pollock and active painting question the spectator if the work of art resides in the performance or the final production and Marcel Duchamp and his “ready-made” if it is the fact of exhibiting an object that makes it a work of art.
All these artists have never ceased to question not only the art world but the creative process in the broad sense in a more or less provocative way.
On the status of spectator and his role writes Marie José Mondzain, apprehending an image can be done in two ways: on the one hand by leaving autonomy to the spectator by letting him approach the work or by trying to objectify its reception at the price of a so-called truth, an objective judgement reducing the camp of interpretations.
The contemporary artist would be caught in the paradox of subversivity.
However, in parashat Metzorah and the verses concerning the tzaraat of the house, it is appropriate for each one to evaluate his degree of affection and to decide, according to his ethical requirements and the status he decides to give to art as light to enlighten society, whether it is appropriate to remove the defilement or to clean more thoroughly, going so far as to destroy the entire building if the need imposes it.
Mathias Elasri LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.