Man Does Not Live by Bread Alone - The Arts as Divine Nourishment
“If I could express it in words, there would be no point in painting.” – Edward Hopper
It is fundamental to the human condition to be in constant conversation with the arts.
Before arguing for its cruciality, it is important to first understand the definition of art. For the purposes of this article, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s definition will suffice: “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and…then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling—this is the activity of art.” In other words, art is the physical manifestation of the artist’s feelings in whichever form they take, be it painting, writing, music or the like.
Exposure to the different forms of art is critical in the development of one’s character. But why? Why is it necessary to interact with the inner dialogue and personal emotions of another individual? Moreover, why should we be invested in thoroughly exploring that deeper aspect of ourselves?
I believe the importance cannot be distilled into one answer. The exigency of art to the human condition lies in multiple planes: character development, spiritual growth, emotional insight, and creative inspiration, to name a few. These are borne out of the fundamental definition of art that we have assumed: that it comes from the experience and feelings of the artist.
First and foremost, as Dostoevsky explained, art is a tool to physically manifest our emotions and feelings. The arts are the forum in which human creativity roams free. Unbridled by social norms and the cultural modus operandi, the artist shares that part of themself which is otherwise hidden.
The arts also enable the artist to introspect and interact with his soul and subconscious. As Ray Bradbury wrote in Zen in the Art of Writing, “It is a wise writer who knows his own subconscious. And not only knows it but lets it speak of the world as it and it alone has sensed it and shaped it to its own truth.” The artist divulges their psyche on their chosen canvas and invites their identity to shine in publishing, painting and prose.
This outpouring of inner thoughts, feelings and ideas, all of which have been molded and imprinted into the artist’s subconscious by their highly personal experience with the world, is beneficial to the audience of the art as well.
By virtue of art’s personal and individualistic makeup, the artist provides insight into other ways of life and opinions, belief systems and outlooks on the world. They illustrate the discrepancies in approaches to life, culture, love, family, community. We understand their point of view better because we peer into the most intimate parts of their subconscious. They stamp their fingerprint on their art’s subject matter, style, and form and provide insight into what makes all types of people unique.
In line with Dostoevsky’s definition of art, the images we see or passages we read are not straightforward expressions of the artist's feelings, but rather unique expressions and interpretations of those emotions and thoughts. The creativity of the artist influences our own creativity and matures our inventive and artistic sensibilities. Art imbues the viewer with ideas and feelings. Poetry may inspire romanticism, a movie plot might impart a business idea, a great book might help you mold and improve your character.
Furthermore, by forming a better understanding of inner struggles and emotions, we become more empathetic individuals and mature our human sensitivities. In Orot Haemunah, Rav Kook explains the importance of this endeavor. He writes, “We must help them develop a refined sensitivity and awareness of the beauty of emotions. This is possible only through the involvement in the wonderful beauty that exists within music, poetry, nature, and all of the arts.”
The beauty of mankind’s existential personal truths would fall on deaf ears were it not for art's ability to give voice to those otherwise inexpressible emotions. Leonard Bernstein, the famous American composer, once remarked:
The most wonderful thing of all, is that there's no limit to the different kinds of feelings music can make you have. And some of those feelings are so special, and so deep, that they can't even be described in words. You see we can't always name the things we feel. Sometimes we can. We can say we feel joy, pleasure, peacefulness, whatever, love, hate. But every once in a while, we have feelings that are so deep, and so special that we have no words for them. And that's where music is so marvelous. Because music names them for us. Only in notes, instead of words. It's all in the way music moves. You must never forget that music is movement. Always going somewhere. Shifting and changing, and flowing. From one note to another. And that can tell us more about the way we feel than a million words can.
Art’s gift of interpreting and expressing our deepest, incomprehensible emotions is not particular to music alone. Literature, painting, poetry, film; these are tools to dive inward, understand our humanity and relate to the eternally perplexing human condition.
The arts help us relate to ourselves and to others, but, perhaps most importantly, they help us relate to the divine as well. Through their mystifying and entrancing nature, they offer a taste of the sense of the ineffable which all human beings crave. We experience and interact with art, and yet we feel a certain disconnect from it – we interpret it in our own way and find meaning in its ambiguity by developing a personalized connection to it. In this light, art is an ideal vehicle for connecting with the divine; we are in awe of its beauty and are comforted that we connect with it in a personal way.
Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in Man is Not Alone, “What smites us with unquenchable amazement is not that which we grasp and are able to convey but that which lies within our reach but beyond our grasp; not the quantitative aspect of nature but something qualitative; not what is beyond our range in time and space but the true meaning, source and end of being, in other words, the ineffable” (P. 4)
Later on he writes, “When we stand in awe, our lips do not demand speech, knowing that if we spoke, we would deprive ourselves...It is like listening to great music; how it reaps the yield from the fertile soil of stillness; we are swept by it without being able to appraise it. The meaning of the things we revere is overwhelming and beyond the grasp of our understanding.” (26)
Heschel explains that words alone would not do justice to an awe inspiring audience with Hashem. We forfeit language’s ability to capture meaning and allow ourselves to be swept away by His grandeur. The arts offer an acceptable albeit stulted solution by exploring emotions in ways that words alone could not.
Even though a closer understanding of Hashem and that which inspires awe, may be approached but never fully attained, we certainly cannot come closer to an understanding from our studies alone. Although we may learn about the divine, it is another thing altogether to experience it. It might seem counterintuitive that exposure to the world at large helps with our connection to Hashem. Not only is it helpful, it is necessary.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, in the transcribed conversations with Rav Sabato in Seeking his Presence, explains his relationship with general culture and how he approaches it. He explains the hazards with an exposure to world culture writ large and how to balance it with a life of Torah in a dialogue that explores interacting with artistic and creative disciplines. He provides an analogy which I’ve always enjoyed:
Imagine a hungry man sitting at a table. Someone offers him a slice of bread, then a second and then a third. But the man is hungry for some jam or butter. Someone may come along and say to him, ‘Fool, what is more important, bread or jam? Bread! What do you need jam for? I’ll give you another slice of bread!’ But man does not live by bread alone. This is how I feel when it comes to these matters. Personally, I feel that I need this supplement. I have found this inspiration in world literature.
Elsewhere, in an essay analyzing a Robert Frost poem, Rav Lichtenstein qualifies the importance of delving into topics outside of Torah. He writes, “It is easy to devote yourself to Torah [exclusively] if you are convinced that everything else is nonsense. Nonsense is easy to give up. But one who sees the beauty in God's creation, who comes to love it, must be strong in order to devote himself to learning Torah. One must not divorce the world, but rather bear in mind one's lover's quarrel with the world.” It may be difficult to see the divine value in art, but if we remember that it is a manifestation of God’s creation, we can’t help but appreciate and be inspired by it.
This inspiration and feeling of connection with that which is greater than ourselves is found in the highly personal work of an artist as well. We sense divinity in perceiving that humans are more alike than we think. The more personal the work, the more universal it will be. Ethan Hawke, a famous american actor, director and author explained art perfectly in a TED video:
“Do you think human creativity matters? Well, most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about poetry, right? They have a life to live and they’re really not that concerned with Allen Ginsberg’s poems or anyone’s poems—until, their father dies; they go to a funeral; you lose a child; someone breaks your heart. And all of a sudden you’re desperate for making sense out of this life. ‘Has anybody felt this bad before? How did they come out of this cloud?’ Or the inverse—something great. You meet somebody and your heart explodes—you love them so much you can’t even see straight. You’re dizzy. ‘Did anybody feel like this before? What is happening to me?’ And that’s when art’s not a luxury—it’s actually sustenance. We need it.”
Art can move and shake you. It can humble and inspire you. It reminds of the majesty of the human spirit and the breadth of the universe all within a canvas or a symphony. Most importantly, it is a shoulder to lean on. It is an artist at their most vulnerable and this expression of emotion is comforting. We feel their pain, sadness, happiness, perseverance, and struggles and we relate and find comfort in the artistic expression of their essence. This is what good art can do.
Art is what we’re here for. To create. To imagine. To innovate. To dream. To hope. This is what art does; both for those who create it and those who are enchanted by it. Art is fundamental to humanity; it inspires us to create. It gives us ideas that we can apply to all our other endeavors. Creativity is not transactional. One person’s piece of art inspires the art of another and so forth. Ideas build on ideas to better and better art. By exposing yourself to creativity and art you will be more creative in everything you do.
When art speaks to you, you feel it. That painting that captures your imagination, unyielding in its hypnotic trance. The song which brings you on a ride, journeying through tempo, melodies and harmony; that lifts your soul to the highest of heights and sends you back to reality only when the final note is meted out. The book with descriptions so real you feel as though the author has transported you into another world with their prose. Art, true art, is so irresistible because it brings us to a place nothing in this world could compare to. Our imagination is provoked and we take a peek behind the magician's curtain within humanity’s subconscious.
If one doesn’t think art, in any manifestation, is for him, perhaps he hasn't exposed himself to the right art. He might not have read the right books yet, watched the right movies, or listened to the right music. But it is certainly clear: We NEED art. It is foundational to the human condition.
I don’t believe people aren’t “into music.” I question people who think that movies just “aren’t for them” or that they “don’t enjoy reading.” I think they just haven’t found something which speaks to them. We’re hardwired to seek out the ineffable. We want to create and communicate with majesty and this is what good art enables us to do. Torah should be our primary focal point in life, of course, but to completely close ourselves off from art altogether would be a shame. Listen to all kinds of music. Watch movies. Go see a show. Read poetry. Read classics. Read fiction. Connect with the thoughts and feelings of the artist. It is fundamental to our experience as human beings. Find the art that speaks to you – it’s out there somewhere.