Art, Religion And Ambiguity


One thing that often turns people off from art is that they can’t figure out what it means. The lack of fixed meaning frustrates them. The more abstract the art form — poetry, for instance, but even more so with dance, music and fine art — the more serious this problem becomes. But the cultural critic Charles Rosen makes an important point about art’s essential ambiguity — its inherent lack of fixed meaning — in his astute new collection of essays, “Freedom and the Arts.”

In the title essay, recently published in The New York Review of Books, where many of the essays first appeared, Rosen argues that art’s inherent ambiguity makes it essential to political freedom. His point is not that all art is political. He argues instead that we must pay more attention to the non-literal, aesthetic qualities of art — be they the pure sound of poetry, or the way music can trigger powerful emotions. When we are more attuned to these effects, then we can better understand how artists have manipulated these qualities to imbue their works with subtle political meanings.

He gives a telling example: Beethoven’s Ninth, “Ode to Joy.” Set to Schiller’s poem from 1785 — when freedom was the day’s cri de coeur, rocking America, soon France, and threatening all of Europe — Beethoven knew the poem might make his royal patrons uneasy. He stuck to the original German word “Freude,” or joy, rather than change it to the overtly political and radical word “Freiheit,” freedom.

But he worked against this choice with the music — a throbbing, militaristic percussive section, followed by an ethereal, celestial passage that seemed to reach to the heavens. The music could at once, Rosen argues, imply both a politically radical idea of freedom, as well as an apolitical, spiritual one. “The triumph of Beethoven’s musical image of freedom depended on more than just the contemporary popularity and relish for the idea” of freedom, he writes. “It needed an adequate musical language for its expression with subtle and complex articulations.”

The ambiguity of art allowed Beethoven to appear non-threatening and apolitical to suspicious political authorities, but also sufficiently radical to those hungry for change.

The history of how art has unsettled authority is long, so it should be no surprise that religious authorities in particular have often had a difficult relationship with it. Much of Western art — its music, its painting — stems from the church’s implicit suspicion of art. Shrewdly, the Christian authorities often co-opted art for their own ends, realizing the power it had.

But Judaism’s relationship to Western art is different. The best explanation of Judaism’s small imprint on the history of Western art is that, until the 20th century, Jews were largely excluded from participating. But Rosen’s essay on art’s ambiguity — and its potential for radical change — might offer a subtler, more critical explanation. Before the modern era, when authority within the Jewish community was still concentrated in rabbinical hands, art also may have proved a powerful, threatening force. Absent the educational resources to train Jews in the high arts, and perhaps better use them to their own ends, the rabbis may have thought it wiser to simply leave art out of the discussion entirely.

But Jewish life today is drastically different from what it was even a century ago. An appreciation for, and steady participation in secular culture has resulted in a widespread Jewish appreciation for the arts, as well as an open embrace of Jewish identity. And yet while there has been, in the last half century, an outpouring of Jewish artists who infuse their works with Jewish content — from Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony to many of R.B. Kitaj’s paintings — there is still a lingering suspicion among many Jews toward art that addresses religious themes. To some, this art can seem too parochial, too limiting, as if all the hard-won freedoms Jews enjoy today — the ability to both participate in secular culture, while also maintaining a strong Jewish identity — were threatened by any attempt to make the arts too Jewish.

But I also suspect their apprehension has something to do with the long religious history of Judaism, and its general mistrust of art. However, now that secular Jews are part of mainstream Western culture, it’s time that Jews of all stripes realize how receptive the religious tradition can be towards the arts. After all, the Bible itself can be understood by both religious and secular Jews as a series of ambiguous stories; like art, their meaning is never fixed. And the rabbis — much like artists — have spent their lives teasing out its multiplicity of meanings. This has been their great legacy.

But perhaps most importantly, at a time when secular Jews are the least informed they have ever been about their religious traditions, art can serve to breathe new life into the role of the traditions in Jewish life. This is not an argument for secular Jews to become strictly religious. But it is a case for secular Jews to become more informed about their religious traditions, and to let art guide the way. After all, it may just be that art, with all its ambiguities and its cherishing of freedom, can open up those traditions to a great many more.

Eric Herschthal covers arts and culture for the paper.