On Second Commandment, Jews, and Abstract Art.
Before the likes of Helen Frankenthaller and Yves Klein, there were the likes of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and before them there were the Russian Suprematists, and before them there was the Second Commandment:
"Thou shalt not make to thyself an idol, nor likeness of anything, whatever things are in the heaven above, and whatever are in the earth beneath, and whatever are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them; for I am the Lord thy God, a jealous God, recompensing the sins of the fathers upon the children, to the third and fourth generation to them that hate me..." (Exodus 20:4-5).
It is second out of ten key injunctions that Moses received from Jehovah on Mount Sinai, inscribed with God's own finger upon two stone tablets. This was the first set of these tablets. Moses smashed them in uncontrollable rage when, on coming down the mountain forty days after he went up, he saw his people doing exactly the opposite of what Jehovah had prescribed. The poor homeless emigrants, unaware yet of any commandments, having despaired of seeing their leader ever again (what with his unexpectedly long absence), and utterly lost in the wilderness with no guidance whatever, had turned to their traditional tribal believes. They cast a sculpture of a Golden Calf, which they placed upon a make-shift altar, to which they sacrificed, and around which they danced in confused hysteria of hope. Indeed, to make this effigy, they stripped their women of all their gold jewelry (despite tears and protests), melted it down, and recast it into the worshipful bovine. And lo and behold! – the Calf obliged, and sent them back their leader - unharmed, and with a couple of stone steles under his arms with something useful written on them.
Imagine their utter shock when they saw this long awaited leader go into a hissy fit, foam at the mouth, smash the two tablets, divine writings and all, and with no explanation order his faithful henchmen, the Levites, to go "each of you kill his brother, his friend, his neighbor." The Levites, who had danced around the Bull and sacrificed to him, along with everyone else, just minutes before Moses showed up, quickly weighed their options and decided that Moses and his god ruled the day; that asking questions would be unwise; and that their own hide needed saving. They presently "obeyed and about three thousand of the people died that day." Moses was pleased with the results: "Today you have consecrated yourselves to the Lord completely," he spoke to his tired assistants while they were wiping their relatives' blood off their hands and knives, "because you have turned each against his own son and his own brother and so have this day brought a blessing upon yourselves." (Exodus 32: 27-28).
The golden calf was accordingly demoted to lower case and sent packing - broken down, pulverized with Jehovah's help, and mixed with the sand. The women, who had lost their husbands, their sons, and their brothers, no longer worried about their lost jewelry. Their valiant leader, meanwhile, hiked back up Mount Sinai to procure copies of the two stone steles that he had smashed. He evidently couldn't remember exactly what was written on the first set, and probably, in retrospect, did feel obliged to explain his actions to his people if he were to command their obedience for the next two-score years. This second round trip took him another forty days, but this time what was left of the tribe did not budge, but patiently waited for him to return with the promised written explanations and instructions.
When he finally did return for good, he showed them the refashioned tablets with the Ten Commandments chiseled upon them. The greater part of these was essentially the stuff that other gods bid their people to do or not to do, in oral or written form, whether the people be Egyptians, Babylonians, Hittites, Amorites, or any other nation Hebrews came into contact with. It was about keeping religious holidays, respecting one's parents, not stealing, not lying, not wenching, not murdering, etc. Everyone knew those, at least in theory, but not everyone followed them to the letter. To be sure, their own Moses had just gratuitously murdered three thousand men and was pleased with himself.
The two very different instructions, though, were the first, about the one and only god to the exclusion of all others, and the second, which was sort of an extension of the first, about the prohibition of any representation – "…nor likeness of anything, whatever things are in the heaven above, and whatever are in the earth beneath, and whatever are in the waters under the earth (sic)." This god of their leader's evidently construed all imagery produced by man's hands as idolatry - an intolerable competition to his own greatness. To the people steeped in centuries of tribal polytheism, the First Commandment must have appeared not a little intolerant on the part of their Moses's divine patron, and the Second simply incomprehensible, for how was one to worship anything invisible?!
No other people did anything of the sort. Just look at the Egyptians, who were a much more ancient race, and with a beautiful country of their own, given to them by their many generous gods, and they certainly knew what was good for them. Indeed, they had divinities for every taste, and no one told them they couldn't worship whom they liked, or couldn't paint them, or sculpt them in all their divine metamorphoses. To be sure, they even had a living one, 'Pharaoh' they called him, and even he didn't forbid worship of other gods, whereas their Moses wasn't even divine, and yet was banning all gods except his one and only.
But they dared not complain, because the Second Commandment had a further stipulation concerning man-made imagery, should anyone disobey and make it anyway – "…Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them; for I am the Lord thy God, a jealous God, recompensing the sins of the fathers upon the children, to the third and fourth generation to them that hate me..." (In other words, if you are not with me, you are against me). And then, in the Third Commandment, there was the part about "…the Lord will not leave unpunished the man who misuses his name." And later on "…a day will come when I shall punish them for their sins." (Exodus 32:34-35), etc., etc., and so forth. And of course there were three thousand dead, murdered in bright daylight, right here at the foot of Mount Sinai, many still unburied and beginning to reek, which made the threats very believable indeed.
The Jews obeyed. In their subsequent thrice-millenarian history they would contravene, individually or collectively, to a greater or lesser degree, just about every one of the commandments - except the first two. They would worship the one and only god, and until the advent of the twentieth century broke all boundaries, they would never draw, paint, or sculpt any of his creation, let alone himself. And not only Jews did it (or rather didn't do it), but the early adherents of Christianity and Islam - the other two monotheistic religions rooted in Judaism - did the same, the latter holding out longer than the former.
Christianity couldn't do without imagery, and soon found a way around the prohibition by explaining to God the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost (as well as to themselves) that there must be pictures for those who can't read - pictures that clarified Biblical stories; that these pictures were not worshipful in themselves, but only representing worshipful ideas that needed to be explained through illustration. Thank heaven they did – we'd have no Michelangelo or Raphael without this excuse. And yet, many a self-appointed religious reformer, whenever he chose to appoint himself for reform, in his anxiety to purify whatever clerical practices he deemed objectionable, soon found himself condemning the Catholic Church's breaking of the Second Commandment. Witness Luther and Calvin, and the destruction, by their followers, of paintings, of statuary, of stain glass windows – in short, of denuding all places of worship they managed to get their hands on. So much the worse for us, because some of the most astonishing art of Northern Renaissance was destroyed in the process. But the Second Commandment was fulfilled and all was well.
Still, what artists learned from Renaissance onward could not be undone – for they learned to represent god's creation as it had never been seen before. Indeed, they themselves became grand creators of natural appearances, often on par with the Creator Himself.
But let us fast-forward across time to the aforementioned advent of the twentieth century. By now the Impressionists had cancelled out 'the form' which Renaissance artists had discovered and bequeathed to later generations of artists; the Expressionists had erased all appearances of conventional decorum in art. There had been Symbolism and Synthetism. And there had also been Fauvism and Cubism, which Matisse and Picasso used respectively to compete with each other in their Úpater le bourgeois rivalry, with Picasso the ultimate champion. And there had been no end of other "isms" besides. There was also the French Revolution, which showed that God wasn't really necessary for one's happiness and fulfillment, and there was Nietzsche who proclaimed God to be dead altogether. Not dead in the literal sense, of course; not like those three thousand Hebrews that He had Moses and the Levites slaughter three millennia earlier, but dead in an ethical sense - no longer a practicable basis for any absolute moral principles. And then there was the first Russian revolution - the bourgeois one that allowed Russian Jews to leave their shtetls and settle in big cities, and also to enroll in universities and… miracle of miracles… in art academies.
Since time immemorial Jews were forbidden to represent anything that breathed, or even looked as if it might breathe, for fear it maybe be construed as idolatry. Ultimately, the safest thing was not to touch a brush or a chisel at all, and they didn't. But now that God was dead, and the Revolution cancelled out all boundaries, traditions, and prohibitions, they were free to do as they liked, unbounded by ritual. Consequently they ran amok, as was only to be expected - the forbidden fruit syndrome. But however drunk they were with this newly found license, they were still Jewish; still the people of The Book; and the Ten Commandments, however much they may scorn them, psychologically were still The Law. It must have been completely titillating, exhilarating, and invigorating for the likes of Malevich, Pevzner, Delaunay, Lissitzky to trample primordial tradition – ostensibly - once it was allowed; but surely it couldn't have been so easy inwardly. The millenarian prohibition on depicting 'likenesses' had to have sunk very deep into their soul.
Which is where western Europeans, with their "isms" experiments came very handy. With this bit between their teeth, and the strong wind of giddy emancipation in their mane, Malevich & Co. galloped through the gates thrown wide-open for them by their western precursors - the gates through which these precursors had not quite gone themselves - into pure abstraction. Christians (Catholics more than Protestants) had the tradition of depicting natural appearances engrained in their soul as much as the opposite was the case with Jews. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they had done an exemplary job of twisting and distorting these appearances, by pen, brush and chisel, into near-unrecognizable shapes, but pure abstraction was another thing altogether – still an unchartered territory. In fact, they did not mind so much if someone else went exploring. They had produced enough outrage after all, and could now sit on their laurels and let others put their best brush avant-guard. And the Jewish artists obliged. Pure abstraction was safe; it was non - representational; it didn't breathe. A bevy of impressive terminology could be (and was) summoned to serve it: Rayonism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Cubo-Futurism… the ISMs of the world unite! And when it came to moral, esthetic and ethical rationalizations, justifications, and higher purposes that were needed to explain this new trend, so those who might wish to follow could feel elevated in their high-mindedness, rather than feeling bewildered - that was easy enough.
After all, were they not evoking the transcendentally mystical, non-representational, un-perceivable nature of the Creator - incomprehensible to mere mortals, and only intelligible to the CHOSEN?!