Rabbi Akiva Tatz M.D.
Excerpt from ‘World Mask’, Targum Press
If one is in a situation where order or symmetry is apparent, one’s response to that symmetry will depend on one’s own inner sense of order or lack of it. For example, if one is traveling by train and is aware of the symmetrical rhythm of the wheels on the tracks – clickety-click, clickety-click, clickety-click – one’s response to that rhythm depends on one’s own inner rhythm at the time: if one is at peace, inwardly tranquil, as one may be when traveling toward some pleasantly anticipated destination, the sound is soothing, pleasant, even musical. The inner symmetry and the outer symmetry are resonating in harmony. But if one is in distress inwardly, perhaps traveling to some unpleasant or feared destination, and one’s thoughts and emotions are in turmoil, the sound is unbearable. The outer harmony is mocking the inner disharmony, and we feel the pain of that mockery.
If a person enters his home in a fine, serene mood after a productive and uncomplicated day, and notices one item of furniture slightly out of place – one of the chairs around the table not quite in line with the others – he may walk over and adjust it so that everything is perfect. His inner order seeks to be mirrored in the outer world. But if the same person enters his home at the end of a frustrating, disastrous day and finds everything just as it should be – all the chairs perfectly in line – he may storm over and kick them into total disarray. The perfect symmetry of his environment mocks the disorder within his mind and the result is an angry attempt to reduce all order into chaos.
Of course, it is not only furniture which may be angrily treated at such times – all too often it is people: usually those who are closest and deserve it least. The disharmonious relationship with self spills over into disharmonious relationships with others…
This understanding of the relationship between inner and outer structures yields an insight into modern Western society. A society has an inner ethos or consciousness and an outer expression. If we wish to explore the consciousness of a generation, we must study its expression in its art forms and its behavior. If art is an expression of the mind and the heart of the artist, then the art of a society will be a reflection of that society’s collective mind and heart.
If we trace the development of all the art forms in Western culture over the past four or five centuries, we find a remarkable thing. In every art form, there has been a striking movement from order to disorder. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of the history of art, but a brief overview will illustrate our point.
In music, for example, the Baroque period was characterized by a highly structured style, meticulous in its rhythmicity and mathematical pattern. In the subsequent Classical period there was a freer style; however, structure was still paramount. The Romantic period allowed more freedom, but rules of form and style were observed. As we move into the modern period, we find an accelerating abandoning of structure – Impressionist composers moved away from the constraints of convention and produced music which was atonal. One of the best-known Impressionist composers had to be escorted from the concert hall by police after the first performance of his major composition – the audience was so outraged that they attacked him!
The outrage generated by producing music which departed from familiar keys and rules of rhythm soon gave way to acceptance, however, and in the modern era it is perfectly acceptable to write and perform music which has no system of convention at all. One modern composer writes music on a mobile: as the staves move in the breeze in front of the musician he plays whatever he sees crossing his field of vision. Another places a cat on the piano keyboard and proceeds to prick it with a pin: as the cat attempts to escape, the audience listens to the sounds produced and ponders their meaning.
The same progression can be seen in painting. Commenting on the nature of modern art, one wry critic observed that there was once a time when a painting of a bowl of fruit looked like a bowl of fruit! In fact, painting a few centuries ago was all representational; the artist’s skill was devoted to capturing a living likeness. Any objective viewer would certainly recognize the result. As we follow painting into the more modern era, however, we find that the concern of the artist became to capture some or other aspect of his subject, not necessarily in harmony with its totality but rather as a subjective experience; and in the most modern phase, the artist will often choose to portray total disharmony.
A visit to a gallery of modern art will reveal canvases with splatters of paint, perhaps various materials glued to a canvas apparently haphazardly, or a wall-sized canvas with a single spot of color in one corner. A modern artist may paint blindfolded or walk around on the canvas with paint on his feet to achieve an effect. The results are often bizarre; there can be little question that if such works would have been displayed two or three centuries ago they would have been deemed to be the work of deranged minds.
If art is a reflection of the collective mind of a culture or a generation, then the conclusion is unavoidable: a taste for symmetry and structure surely implies an inner sense of these qualities, and a taste, or at least an acceptance, of disharmony and destructuring implies a breakdown of the inner sense of order. Whether expressions of discord and disharmony such as those of the modern era are rightfully to be termed art or not is not the point of this discussion; the point is simply that the creative expression of this generation reflects a preoccupation with such dissonances…
Architecture and interior design are not exceptions. A visitor to Wordsworth’s house in England’s Lake District notes an interesting feature on being shown into the ornate drawing room. As one enters the room through a door at one end, one finds that in the wall directly opposite there is an identical door. But that door is a fake – it leads nowhere. The reason: in the era during which that house was built and appointed it was unthinkable to decorate a room asymmetrically! If there is a door in this wall, there must be a matching, balancing one exactly opposite. Anyone inhabiting such a dwelling then would have felt uncomfortable in asymmetrical surroundings.
Yet today, design is almost never symmetrical. The modern eye finds absolute symmetry boring in the extreme. It is common today to find walls of different colors in the same room, unusual angles and unbalanced shapes used for interest. The modern psyche is comfortable in a disordered environment…
If it is true that the inner state seeks to be reflected in the outer form, then we can begin to understand, as the Messianic age approaches, as mankind devolves into pre-Messianic strife and disintegration, the artistic expression of society accurately reveals the inner turmoil. Technological advances have not been paralleled by moral and spiritual advance, and the existential vacuum breeds a directionless disarray…