The Artist’s Spirit
Just before dawn, on a summer night in 1889, looking out the window of a mental institution, Vincent Van Gogh painted what would become one of his most famous works: “Starry Night.” It’s one of the most recognized and reproduced images in the history of art. At this peak of his lifelong struggle with mental illness, perhaps the most turbulent moment of his life, he painted this incredible work, which depicts the night sky with brilliant swirls of whites and blues, and luminescent stars. Looking at it, one can’t help but be drawn in, mesmerized by the way the painting seems to move.
Natalya St. Clair, author of The Art of Mental Calculation, in examining “Starry Night,” explains that “Van Gogh and other Impressionists represented light in a different way than their predecessors, seeming to capture its motion, for instance, across sun-dappled waters, or here in star light that twinkles and melts through milky waves of blue night sky.” But what of the sense of movement that exists in so many of Van Gogh’s paintings? Could there be more behind it than meets the eye? St. Clair tells this story:
In 2004, using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists saw the eddies of a distant cloud of dust and gas around a star, and it reminded them of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” This motivated scientists from Mexico, Spain, and England to study the luminance in Van Gogh’s paintings in detail. They discovered that there is a distinct pattern of turbulent fluid structures close to [Russian mathematician Andrey] Kolmogorov’s equation [for measuring the complex movement of turbulent flow] hidden in many of Van Gogh’s paintings.
The researchers digitized the paintings, and measured how brightness varies between any two pixels. From the curves measured for pixel separations, they concluded that paintings from Van Gogh’s period of psychotic agitation behave remarkably similar to fluid turbulence. His self-portrait with a pipe, from a calmer period in Van Gogh’s life, showed no sign of this correspondence. And neither did other artists’ work that seemed equally turbulent at first glance, like Munch’s ‘The Scream.”
While it’s too easy to say Van Gogh’s turbulent genius enabled him to depict turbulence, it’s also far too difficult to accurately express the rousing beauty of the fact that in a period of intense suffering, Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind, and to unite his unique mind’s eye with the deepest mysteries of movement, fluid and light.
Isn’t this precisely what artists do? They look at the same world we are looking at, but somehow find and capture amazing new insights we never saw. Consider the urban beat of a city that gets incorporated into a talented Jazz musician’s composition, a writer who offers a different look at our modern societal challenges, or the way an artist like Van Gogh captured light in a whole new way. A good work of art can strike a chord within us, evoke a feeling or emotion we didn’t realize was present. It can draw us back to a memory, or paint a picture of the world as we know it could be, or just make us stop and enjoy a few fleeting moments of quiet. Artists are truly endowed with a unique skill.
This week, in our Torah portion, Vayakheil/Pekudei, we read of one special artist, Betzalel, who is tasked to be the lead architect on the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that would travel with the Israelites as they journeyed through the desert. About Betzalel, we read that he was chosen because of his unique qualifications. According to the text, Betzalel was endowed with a Divine Spirit, in Hebrew, a ruach Elohim - literally, the breath or spirit of God, as well as skill (chochmah), ability (t’vunah), and knowledge (da’at) in every kind of craft...inspiring him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper” (Ex. 35:31-32). Clearly, there is something special about this artisan Betzalel. Rashi, the great 11th century French commentator, describes these three traits this way: chochmah, wisdom or knowledge is what a person hears from others and learns; t’vunah, ability or insight is using one’s intellect to understand new things based on what one has learned; and da’at, knowledge, refers to being imbued with the Holy Spirit.
These three traits appear together to describe only three people in all of the Hebrew Bible. Here, to describe Betzalel; then again to describe Hiram, who fashioned all the bronzework of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem; and finally to describe the gifts of an ideal, awaited leader, in Hebrew mashiach, the anointed one: “Ruach Adonai, the spirit of the Divine, will rest upon him; a spirit of wisdom (chochmah) and insight (binah, the same root as t’vunah), a spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of knowledge (da’at) and an awe for Adonai” (Isaiah 11:4). Rabbi Rachel Timoner observes that ruach, spirit, gives extraordinary people the ability to learn from others and an awareness about how to live a good life. In the Bible, a talented artist is not taken lightly. It is as if they are imbued with the ability to look at the world with divine eyes and reflect it back onto us, like a sacred mirror.
Perhaps what we need now, more than ever, is more good art. Art has the potential to provide a common language of a divided nation; a starting point for a conversation. In our Sh’ma Groups, the new name for Beth Am’s Small Groups initiative, we are using photographs and paintings to spark thoughtful conversations on the concept of where people feel at home. In our Torah portion, the project Betzalel oversees is so popular, so holy, so important to the Israelites, that Betzalel has to go to Moses, and tell him to ask the people to STOP bringing gifts, for they are simply bringing too much (Ex. 36:5). It’s known as one of the most successful Jewish fundraising campaigns ever. Today, artists don’t usually enjoy such abundance of resources. Right now, as Congress debates cutting funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, there are voices on BOTH sides of the aisle that remind us of the importance of public funding for arts education. As Mike Hukabee wrote this week in an op-ed in the Washington Post:
I...care greatly about the real recipients of Endowment funds: the kids in poverty for whom NEA programs may be their only chance to learn to play an instrument, test-drive their God-given creativity and develop a passion for those things that civilize and humanize us all. They’re the reason we should stop and recognize that this line item accounting for just 0.004 percent of the federal budget is not what’s breaking the bank. Participation in the arts leads to higher grade-point averages and SAT scores, as well as improvements in math skills and spatial reasoning. Do we want students who are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to have academic success, particularly in math and science? Music and art deliver, especially for students likely to get lost in an education assembly line that can be more Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” than about creative thinking and problem solving. Creativity finds cures for diseases, creates companies such as Apple and Microsoft and, above all, makes our culture more livable.
Art - be it written word or music, poetry or prose, visual or performance - can capture and help us process the difficult moments in our lives when things around us don’t make any sense or take us by surprise. Consider the image of the Vietnam War protester placing a flower into the rifle of a soldier, the way “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement, the way Picasso’s “Guernica” captured the violence and torment of the Spanish Civil War, and today it hangs in the UN Security Council chamber as a powerful visual reminder of the dark side of war.
Artists help us look at our world through a different lens; a critical lens. It can inspire us to aspire to the best version of ourselves. This is what Bezalel and his artisans were able to do. They took the abundance that the Israelites brought -- having generously given the best of themselves -- and transformed those objects into something holy. Art can help us become more attuned to our own inner qualities of wisdom, insight, and knowledge, reminding us to use those skills to bring more goodness and beauty into our world. If nothing else, the presence of art in our lives reminds us that there is indeed great beauty all around us.