I could hardly put down the book I am Asher Lev, a novel about the impossible coexistence of the beliefs of an observant Hasidic Jew, Asher Lev, and his drive to create visual art. I marked several pages in order to think about them further. In this excerpt, a non-observant Jewish artist/mentor speaks to a young Asher:
The world fills me with disgust more often than it fill me with joy. Are you listening to me, Asher Lev? The world is a terrible place. I do not sculpt and paint to make the world sacred. I sculpt and paint to give permanence to my feelings about how terrible this world truly is. Nothing is real to me except my own feelings: nothing is true except my own feelings as I see them all around me in my sculptures and paintings. I know these feelings are true, because if they were not true they would make art that is as terrible as the world.
I have often felt that I have a responsibility to speak the truth in my own art. Much of it is filled with pain, suspicion, and despair. I have primarily chosen women and children to paint, because I feel they have the least voice in the world. One painting, Eyes Only, is of a Muslim woman, whose eyes only are unbound and speak without speaking.
She is my world-sister and I love her, though I have never met her. I had this at a show once and a man, a soldier, could not stop looking at it. I quietly ask if he had seen a woman such as this in his deployment. He just nodded his head, with his eyes still locked on the painting for a very long time.
The mentor continues as he looks at a painting Asher is doing of a boy who has taunted him:
In art, cowardice and indecision can be seen in every stroke of a brush. If you hate him, paint your hatred or do not paint him at all. One must not paint everything one feels. But once you decide to paint something, you must paint the truth or you will paint green rot.
The brush stroke reveals everything. It is a recording of the physical and mental state of the artist. The choice of paint color or thickness adds to the information that is recorded on the canvas. It is a time capsule of who you are at that moment. Indecision, fear, sickness, heartache, exuberance. The choice to make the line is the choice to live. It is always a response, a reflection of the artist’s soul. When the subject of the painting is in harmony with the message of the brush, then truth is born on the canvas. Otherwise, there is a schizophrenic jump between subject and artist and a lie is born.
Later, Asher says to himself:
I worked for – what? How could I explain it? For beauty? No. Many of the pictures I painted were not beautiful. For what then? For a truth I did not know how to put into words. For a truth I could only bring to life by means of color and line and texture and form.
Artists paint because words are not sufficient. Not that words are not wonderful and powerful, but there is a different power in the painting. Like God created the first man from the dust of the ground, the artist gives life through the ground dust of pigments and breathes onto the canvas through the brush. Artists paint because we must paint to feel alive.