Sometimes certain works of art kindle something inside us the first time we see them. We find our emotions stirred in a wonderful, inexplicable way. When the gaze of our eyes meets the work of art, it is like the striking together of flint and steel. A spark goes forth and ignites something deep in our psyche. Energy is generated on a level that transcends the physical realm. We feel a "burning in the bosom," to borrow a phrase from Mormonism.
Why do some pieces of art move us like this and other pieces move us only a little or not at all? What is it that gives a work of art the spark that causes the viewer to connect with it? What is the source of that elusive spark that every artist hopes will be ignited when viewers interact with his artwork? Kabbalah, the esoteric or "inner dimension" of Torah study, provides some ideas that can help us understand what it is that makes art so powerful.
The Jewish mystics known as Kabbalists teach that the physical universe was created by a series of ten Divine emanations. For life and movement to exist in the physical universe, there must be some form of energy to animate matter. According to Kabbalah, the physical world derives its life and energy from the nitzotz, the "spark" that exists in the Divine force of creation. In Kabbalistic thought, God injects these Divine sparks into creation at certain points of history. These sparks make their way upward through the four levels of existence -- the mineral world, the plant world, the animal world, the human world --and then return to their Divine Source. When all the sparks have returned to their Source, history as we know it will end. The sparks are like the grains of sand in an hourglass.
Nitzotz: The Spark in Art
an Essay by Daniel Botkin
The hourglass is inverted so that the sparks travel upward rather than downward, but the idea is the same. When all the sparks have passed from the lower, physical realm to the higher, spiritual realm, this present age will end and the Messianic age will begin.
I am not a Kabbalist and I do not believe everything that Kabbalah teaches. However, Kabbalistic thought does help explain how and why art affects viewers the way it does. Every true creation of art contains some measure of the nitzotz, the creative spark, because every created thing ultimately derives its existence from the Creator. It is the presence of this creative spark that kindles our emotions when we view a work of art. Because we come from the same creative spark, we sense on a subconscious level the commonality that we share.
There is a linguistic link between nitzotz, the word for spark, and tzitzit, the ritual fringes worn by Orthodox Jewish men. These two Hebrew words are derived from two very similar roots that both express the idea of glittering and sparkling. The purpose of the tzitzit is to remind the wearer of his obligation to obey God's commandments. Just as the mind and heart are elevated to lofty and noble thoughts by the presence of the tzitzit, so the presence of the nitzotz in a work of art can elevate the mind and heart of the viewer.
The degree to which a piece of art can affect a viewer is determined by two factors: how much of the creative spark is present in the art and how perceptive the viewer is. A story is told of a Torah scholar who went to an art exhibit. He was asked to look at all the artwork and declare each piece either true or false. With no knowledge of the individual artists who did the work and with no background in art, the Torah scholar was able to quickly and easily judge which pieces of art were true and which were false. He was able to do this because years of in-depth Torah study had taught him to intuitively recognize universal truths.
Kabbalists believe that when the energy that is generated by the Divine sparks is used for good and noble purposes, this hastens the upward migration of the sparks in the inverted hourglass, thus hastening the coming of the Messianic age. Maybe we should start asking Torah scholars to judge and jury our art exhibitions. If the Kabbalists are right, we can hasten the coming of the Messianic age. We artists can do our part by filling the world with artwork that is so saturated with the creative spark, the nitzotz, that the hearts and minds of mankind will ascend with those Divine sparks as they fly upward to their Source and their Destiny.
Time and Eternity by Daniel Botkin
The above essay by Daniel Botkin was published in Art Calendar, a business magazine for visual artists. The author grants permission to reprint his essay with the following conditions: The essay must be reprinted in its entirety without any form of editing and must be attributed to Daniel Botkin.