Art lovers were horrified to read that a treasure trove of stolen masterpieces from the Dutch Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam last October were likely burned to ashes by the mother of one of the alleged thieves.
Olga Dogaru explained to authorities that, in order to erase any possible evidence linking a Picasso, Monet and other works to her son Radu, she built a fire in a wood-burning stove in her remote village into which she dumped hundreds of millions worth of art.
In an age of digital copies and distributed networks, of Warhol-inspired reproductions and instant access to high-definition images of anything and everything, the quick destruction of paintings for which we have millions of copies reminds us of the rare quality of “the real thing.” Just as the Talmud teaches that destroying a single soul is like destroying the entire world, destroying a single priceless work of art is like striking a blow to the entire history, and meaning, of art.
In his classic 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” philosopher Walter Benjamin writes that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Benjamin argues that the power of a work of art goes back to a primal, communal need for magic and ritual — a unique object emitting, or being granted, an “aura” of the mystery of holiness that exists only around it.
Working at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, I have ample opportunity to observe people’s responses to original artwork. In many instances, even with priceless works by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and others in our current exhibition “Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art,” co-presented with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, people’s responses depend entirely on what they bring to the work.
Whereas in the old days of art and religion there were fewer objects, and their power was specific and obvious, today a visitor’s response depends on what he or she expects. There is no prescribed response.
Take a series of works like Alfred Stieglitz’s “Equivalents,” miniature works considered to be the first photographs received purely as “art.” Some are immensely moved by these abstract visual poems, and understand why some of Stieglitz’s contemporaries described him as “having photographed God.” Others, who expected Sistine Chapel-sized images, may be disappointed by the intimate scale. Either way, there is no essential meaning to glean.
It’s not much of a leap to explore a Torah — a hand-written scroll of sacred writings, on animal skin, created for use in holy ritual — as an example of Benjamin’s idea that “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning.” The Torah is an unusual hybrid, a book/object that has been reproduced and recopied for hundreds of generation, yet in its construction, use and veneration it is meant to evoke the quality of a unique ritual object, the Ur-Torah, given by God to Moses and the Jewish people.
The Temple, on the other hand, has had a different history. Despite the Temple Mount’s status as the holiest Jewish space on earth (and putting aside all politics for the moment), and the original animal sacrifice which took place there as a unique connection to God, Jewish tradition took the opportunity to turn the Temple’s destruction into a distributed network of holiness. The rabbis saw enormous value in the “copy” — the lower-case temples soon to be strewn throughout the world, and the translation of the sacrifice into prayer service. What Jewish tradition understood is that the quality of holiness — or “pricelessness” as the art market would have it — has to do with communal agreement, even if that agreement changes with time.
In the best of cases, Jewish museums can create a platform for this kind of conversation. In what way, for instance, can our awareness of the holiness of Torah help us see the inspiring beauty of contemporary art? And in what way can one’s experience in a museum — standing quietly in front of an artist’s attempt to channel the deepest spiritual experience he or she can muster — give us renewed access to a quality of presentness that defined the consciousness of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs?
Standing in front of Rothko’s canonical “No. 14, 1960,” its shimmering blues and reds a gift to humanity, one is rooted to the spot. Rothko himself thought of his work as a portal into revelation, hoping that “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”
When I stand in front of a Rothko I begin to imagine a language for the experience Moses might have had at the Burning Bush. To force his attention, God asked him where he was, and Moses answered: “Hineini.” I am present. Presence, in today’s scattered, digital world, is priceless.
Daniel Schifrin is writer in residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.