Sunday, March 31, 2013

The March to Freedom: Passover and the Arts

Passover is a time when we contemplate freedom, and this year I happen to be thinking about the freedom to be artistically creative. When we took our Passover break in school, I was in the middle of the Renaissance with my AP Art History class, and right before our vacation, we saw how the Renaissance began a process that eventually freed art from the constraints of the political and religious powers it was under in the ancient and medieval worlds.

Bronzino's Portrait of a Young Man, 1530's
This portrait from the Mannerist era,  a bridge movement from the Renaissance
to the Baroque period, is of an aristocrat and shows the importance that the individual
began to have in the Renaissance world
True, art was bound from the Renaissance to the 19th century to traditional subjects such as mythology, history, religion, and portraiture, with landscape, still life and genre painting becoming acceptable in the 17th and 18th centuries, but these small steps towards artistic freedom should not be belittled. They were important ones that led to the freedom artists such as Gericault took advantage of when he painted Insane Woman in the early 19th century:

Gericault never could have painted a portrait of an insane woman
if the Renaissance hadn't opened up the Western world to the power
of the individual
By the 20th century, artists such as Picasso, Duchamp and Kandinsky shook things up even more by abstracting art to basic, even nonsense forms, thus releasing it forever from any kind of standard or straitjacket. Mark Tansey makes fun of this process in his triptych, A Short History of Modernist Painting, which takes us from the Renaissance all the way on the left, with its "opening up a window onto the world," to Modernism in the middle, which is about the artist coming up against the constraints of form, to the post-modern world, which contemplates itself ad infinitum, to the point that we are all absurd, or as Tansey suggests, chickens:

Mark Tansey's A Short History of Modernist Painting
The Israelite and other slaves in Egypt as well as slaves in additional parts of the ancient world did not have any kind of freedom, artistic or otherwise. When my AP Art History class and I study ancient Egypt, we note that though the Israelites were not the ones to build the pyramids, Khufu's pyramid, for example, took 84,000 slaves 80 days per year for 20 years to build. The Bible, Exodus 1:11, records the fact that the Israelites were responsible for building the store-cities of Pithom and Raamses. We often learn about city planning as a form of art. Here is a Hippodamian city plan from Hellenistic times that the class studies:

Not only were slaves in the ancient world conscripted to build the pharaoh's tombs; they were also conscripted to build cities and anything else the pharaoh decided he wanted. Even in the Renaissance, a time when art was changing and wealthy patrons began to support individual artists who could then earn an autonomous living with their work, an artist as great as Michelangelo couldn't escape the demands of the pope, who ordered the artistic genius to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo tried to hide with the Medici family in Florence, but it's really hard to ignore a papal summons. (For more information on this topic, go to this informative site.) 

If Michelangelo had had complete artistic freedom,
the world would have been denied his wondrous Sistine Chapel ceiling

Eventually, Michelangelo relented, though he was furious at the thought of having to paint, when all he wanted to do was sculpt. Michelangelo first and foremost considered himself a sculptor. (Side note: I wish my second-best talent could produce something on a par with the Sistine Chapel ceiling.) The relationship between artist and patron could be contentious as the one with Michelangelo and Pope Julius II shows. 

Michelangelo used a portrait of Pope Julius II to represent the prophet Zachariah.
One of the two cherubic-like beings behind the pope gives the Holy See a rude finger gesture
known as The Fig, showing Michelangelo's feelings for his employer
Though we love the results of Pope Julius' tyranny over one of the most famous Renaissance artists, we can also come to appreciate in this short sojourn through the history of art how much artistic license artists have today. In the Western world, we are free to create and imagine anything we can think of, and we can earn a living if others appreciate our artistic expressions. Andy Warhol encapsulated this democratic spirit, albeit sarcastically, as he also pokes fun at our highly commercialized world, in his famous Coke ad:

Everyone, rich or poor, can enjoy a Coke (and a cavity, obesity and diabetes, but that's for another post ;). Though one may argue about whether Warhol intended to be so embracing of universal man, a democratic ideal can be seen in the work, which shatters the concept of high art, art that has traditional subjects, and replaces it with subject matter that is accessible and understood by everyone. 

In the beginning of March, I remarked on the production of The Comedy of Errors that the Frisch Parents Association brought to the school. When I reread the play and some scholarly articles on it ("Consideration, Contract, and the End of The Comedy of Errors" by Andrew Zucher and "The Comedy of Errors and the Meaning of Contract" by Paul Raffield), I learned that the dispute over the chain in the play heralds a new focus on the rights of the businessman and contract law, a realm of law that would slowly move the Western world to the commercial one in which we live today. It is no accident, then, that the Renaissance word painter, Shakespeare, ends his play, in which servant twins are beaten dreadfully and for great audience laughs, with the servant twins speaking to each other:

Methinks you are my glass, and not my brother:
I see by you I am a sweet-faced youth.
Will you walk in to see their gossiping?

Not I, sir; you are my elder.

That's a question: how shall we try it?

We'll draw cuts for the senior: till then lead thou first.

Nay, then, thus:
We came into the world like brother and brother;
And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another.


Act V Scene I

The two Dromios see in each other not hierarchy and class, but an equal, a brother, in the most literal sense of the word, since they are twins, and their conclusion, as they debate who should enter the house where the other characters are celebrating, is to eschew seniority, rank and power and instead replace it with fraternity and brotherhood, in other words, democracy. 

We who follow in Moshe's path, who note the injustices of the world and will not be quiet, who aim for equality and freedom for all, can recognize the march to liberation that the Western artistic world has taken and that has been somewhat limned in this post, because that march was begun in the Torah, by the Reed Sea, in the story we celebrate on Passover, the festival of freedom. 

Chag sameach.

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