Last night I attended a dramatic production of my all-time favorite novel, My Name is Asher Lev. In his book, author Chaim Potok tells the story of a young Hasidic Jew trying to reconcile his artistic genius with the expectations of a strict Jewish community. He is cast out of his Jewish community and at one point in the story tries to respond by taking steps away from his Jewish roots. He feels that is what he must do to become a true artist. But his friend and mentor Jacob Kahn pulls him back in with these words: “Listen to me, Asher Lev. As an artist you are responsible to no one and nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it. Do you understand? An artist is responsible to his art. Anything else is propaganda. Anything else is what the Communists in Russia call art.” Kahn recognizes that Asher is, at his core, a Jew. Not only that, but he is a devout Jew. Though the Jewish community has cast him out he must not abandon his Judaism for an artistic image. Rather he must embrace this part of himself and allow it to infuse every inch of his paintings.
I love this story on so many levels. I love the understanding of art that is presented throughout. The quote above is telling. Since the dawn of the 20th century we have created a world infiltrated with so much propaganda. Even as I teach about the media and have my students create their own mock propaganda I often wonder where the line is between propaganda and art.
I think the best example of this dichotomy at work exists in the Jewish concentration camp called Theresienstadt. This camp was set up as the "model" camp where the Red Cross and other foreign agencies could come in to "investigate." Of course there were no killings at this camp (though most of its prisoners were sent off to Auschwitz after the inspections were over). Artists were employed by the S.S. to paint pictures and murals that would beautify the setting. This was propaganda. These same men and woman would steal away with paper and supplies to create their own images. This was art. Those paintings are grotesque and dark, encapsulating what is really going on within this "model" camp. Art does not have to be beautiful, but it does have to be true. It has to be a representation of what the artist believes is reality.
As Jacob Kahn was mentoring a young boy to become an artist he was showing him how to remain true to himself in a world of so much opposition. In a world that told him he could not be an artist and a Jew, the tension is real and honest. That is what I love about the book and about Chaim Potok's writings.
I believe that true artists are rare. Most of us create for something outside ourselves. The times and pressures of our society have forced us to funnel even our creative energy into the vast capitalist machine where time is money and money is paramount.
Which leaves me wondering - with all of this emphasis on design and creation in schools, are we stymieing the true artists? When we set up authentic problems we are asking them to design for a business or an organization. Isn't there value in teaching our students to write or draw or simply for themselves? Don't we need to teach self-expression first and foremost? Sometimes self-expression is best cultivated in the midst of opposition (just look at the Beatles). Now that we are embracing creativity are we enabling "artists" become shallow and utilitarian?
Do I add fuel to the propaganda machine?