“Squint”, I tell my friend, as she folds her eyes into tiny narrow slits.
“Now look carefully at what is darker and what is lighter – that’s what you paint…If that’s what you’ll paint, people will see what you see”.
I’ll never forget this – the single-most clear instruction yielded by my years of formal training in art school. Indeed it has been proven, tried and tested. It is truth. Artists do not paint contour, form, shapes…we paint the light, and the dark.
Years later, this lesson permeates my very being. Practice has engraved my art professor’s words even deeper than ever, and the ramifications of his statement have extended beyond what I see, now, to what I do.
This concept is not new: “Chiaro Scuro” in Italian, or “Clair Obscur” in French, meaning “Light Dark” was the term coined during the Renaissance to describe the perfection of a technique primarily using two tones, one, light, and the other, dark, which would give a two dimensional image the illusion of re-attaining three.
The Renaissance was an era (14th to 17th centuries), during which artists succeeded in constructing the illusion of a third dimension, a feat which artists had heretofore not been able to execute.
Relative to the discovery of perspective, ChiaroScuro – the mastery of shade and shadow – may seem diminutive in importance, but at its zenith, this newly refined depiction of volume was revolutionary, as one after another artist sculpted the canvas without ever rippling its surface, successfully mastering the mimic of the third dimension.
While ChiaroScuro typically refers to the technique used to create art, the idea of light and dark defining form appear in ther guises. I would like to share with you some fascinating encounters with this concept as it intersects with science and Chassidus.
Let us review the workings of the mechanism that G-d has equipped the human body with to see the world.
This vessel, a.k.a the “eye”, relies upon the reflection and absorption of photons to achieve an image of our surroundings. A packet of light waves or particles is emitted from a light source, for example, the sun. This primary source emits light.
Now the light travels until it encounters an object.
Certain photons or “light packets”, belonging to a particular frequency (which we can identify by color or temperature), of the full spectrum of light are absorbed by this object. This depends on the particular properties of that object. Other photons are reflected.
The result is that the reflections off this secondary object compose an image on the retina of our eye.
This may sound familiar to some of you.
“What”, you will ask, “am I trying to get at?”
Physical light and physical dark, and the spectrum between them, are the only index with which we are familiar that G-d allows our eyes to use in order to perceive the universe. Should we have been created with any other type of visual perception vessel, light and dark would be meaningless.
So G-d wanted us to “see”, as we know it. And He decided that in order to “see” we needed contrast.
Now let’s switch gears for a moment and include a different discussion, which makes ample use of the same terminology: Light and Dark.
We are familiar with the mandate given to the Jewish people, and made famous by the holiday of Channukah, to transform darkness into light. And, although we focus on this mission primarily during this holiday, it is nonetheless, stipulated by our sages and leaders that this should be the focus of our actions during the entire year. The discussion of how to engag e with spiritual light and darkness, so it seems, is of prime importance in our faith.
But here a question arises … If we were to transform all of darkness to light, would we no longer have the capacity to “see” any longer? One could argue that our spiritual vessel of perception, similar to its physical counterpart, the eye, cannot distinguish form (or function) without this familiar contrast. So how is it possible, that we are instructed to abolish this contrast? Does the spiritual differ from the physical in this respect? If our spiritual eye is really different from its physical brother, how and why is it so?
I am reminded of a book that I am currently reading, which presents as its premise the following thought: all scientific revolutions are preceded by an upheaval of artistic dogma. According to author Leonard Shlain of Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light, before we can change our way of thinking, we must change our way of seeing.
Let us return to the world of art. The recent modern era might hint at a most unusual resolution to my dilemma. The works of Mark Rothko, with single tone color fields, or Yves Klein, who created his own paint color, patented it and then called it art when displayed as a single coat of paint covering a canvas … these artists opened a new door, to a world where the contrast of tones was no longer the defining technique.
In fact, the revolution of the art world in the 60s and 70s has extended to now commonplace use of graphics to communicate visually. A flattening of visual perspective has occurred and a new universal language of symbols and icons no longer caters to the perspective-trained viewer. Even more astounding is the rapid adaptation of our eye and then brain to the screen, the ipad, the iphone … We slip seamlessly, without tension, into a world of two dimensions and universal communication. “Could it be”, I muse to my self, “that the dogma of light and dark is slipping away to reveal a new visual protocol, a new definition of how the eye sees?”
Is it possible that all those people asking themselves how a blank white canvas can be art are missing the point?
I begin to wonder if the recent developments we have experienced in art and the physics of light will bear any relevance on the biology of the eye or the mind. Perhaps how we physically see can even change?
Whether or not that may the case, we are taught that, at least at our very essence, the core self, the self that remains unchanged, does see the world as one.
Our spiritual eye, actually “sees” through several layers – whether through layers of good and evil, or through layers of kindness and cruelty, she ultimately pierces the veils to see one truth.
The veils also have their purpose. Imagine that work of art that you discover rounding a corner from a funny angle, so immense that you can only see one part of it at a time, never the whole expanse. A part of our soul sees the world just like that.
This is what I coin the Richard Serra syndrome. As we weave in and out of the orifices created by a large sculpture, we transform the art by our experiencing it. We cast a shadow, a different one depending on the time of day. Or we bring a friend and stand at opposite ends of this strange amorphous metal being and call out to each other, listening to the funny echoes caused by our game.
This part of our soul, who plays hide-and-seek, is aware of the importance of our presence, of the instruments of time and space and of our task to change the “art” – in this case our life, our world. This part of our soul knows a little bit about optometry, renewing different prescriptions for different people, allowing them to assume the roles they play, and us our own.
But on yet another, even higher, deeper level, there is a small spark that remains unchanged. A part of us that glows, always true, always beautiful, always kind and always good. The part of us that is part of Hashem, in a way that the rest of us isn’t. This is the closest thing we’ve got to seeing the world through Hashem’s infinite vision. And unlike the other parts of our soul and their manic game of prescription tag, since Hashem doesn’t change, we can rely on this spark to use as the ultimate lens, the absolute best pair of eyes, our default when faced with the most unclear and “fuzzy” of challenges.
I believe that the art made by Rothko and Klein, and its dialogue with the art of Richard Serra, to name only a few, is a sample of a larger phenomenon. We have entered a messianic era, an era when all becomes one, when He is known as One, and His name is One. And our soul sees this clearly. She has accessed the very highest level of awareness, and is no longer confined to the ever-changing constantly-shifting race of visual stimulation, where every vision is “it” until “it” is replaced by the next “it”.
To the extent that art can express the subconscious yearnings of a zeitgeist, do I appeal to the masses to seek out a masterpiece or two or three, to awaken their soul, and their highest visual vessels, so that we might complete the transformation of this world to one creation, true, good and beautiful, apparent to every prescription, irrefutable to every eye.