The Artist's Role in Society
From an Etymological-Hebraic Perspective
an Essay by Daniel Botkin
Art has powerful potential for good or for evil because art can present ideas in persuasive ways, and ideas, when embraced and acted upon, can change the course of history. For this reason the serious artist has a serious responsibility. The seriousness of the artist's role in society becomes even more apparent when one looks at the subject from a linguistic perspective.
Let us examine an ancient word, a word which is perhaps the oldest linguistic term used to refer to an artist. The word to which I refer is the ancient Hebrew word for artist, aman.1 The etymology and linguistic implications of this word can give us some ideas about the role of the artist in ancient times. This can help today's artist determine if he is faithfully fulfilling the role which artists were originally intended to fulfill.
This ancient word for artist, aman, is spelled with the letters Aleph, Mem, Nun, A-M-N. Speakers of English may notice a similarity to Amen, a Hebrew word which has found its way into English via the Bible. This similarity is no coincidence: Both words are derived from the same verb, and both words are spelled with the same three Hebrew letters.2
The general meaning of the A-M-N verb is to support something, to give firmness and stability to something. The utterance of the word "Amen!" does this very thing. Whether in a religious or non-religious setting, the word Amen is an expression of affirmation and verification of ideas. In the same way, the aman (artist) uses his talents to express affirmation and verification of ideas which he wants to communicate. As we shall see, there is a vital link between art and ideas.
There are several other Hebrew words derived from this A-M-N root. (I know of eight used in the Bible and twenty used in modern Hebrew.) These words all share similar meanings. With a little study and thought, some of these words can reveal what was expected of the artist in earlier centuries.
Ideas that are prevalent in the definitions of these related A-M-N words are concepts such as faithfulness, fidelity, and truth. This suggests that in ancient times the work of the artist/aman was expected to be imbued with noble qualities such as faithfulness and truth. The artist/aman of modern times should likewise be faithful in depicting his subjects in a truthful manner. This does not mean that the artist must use a photo-realistic style, nor does it mean that the artist cannot take artistic liberties and change visual and historical details when such changes serve a purpose. The artist/aman is free to practice what poet Robert Penn Warren called "tampering with non-essential facts."3 However, the artist/aman should strive to portray and promote ideas which are faithful and true.
Other A-M-N words related to aman /artist suggest ideas of support, security, and stability. One of these words, omnah, means "a pillar." How are artists related to pillars? The arts can and do have a very powerful influence on society, so in this sense the artist is one of the "pillars of society." Because the arts can influence society for good or for evil, the artist has a serious responsibility to function as a strong pillar that upholds things which are good and true and noble. When the pillars begin to weaken and crumble from corruption, the entire structure is endangered.
It is believed by some linguists that the Hebrew A-M-N words are the source of Greek M-N words which have to do with thought and memory: mneia ("recollection"), mneme ("memory"), mnemon ("mindful"), mnestis ("remembrance"), etc. These Greek words are linked to English M-N words such as mnemonic, mental, amnesia, and even perhaps man (since rational thinking is what distinguishes man from other creatures).
This information brings us back again to the vital link between art and ideas. This link between art and ideas is also expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures, where Betzalel is described as an artist whose God-given talents include not only the ability to work with metals, stones, and wood, but also the ability "to think thoughts."4 The Hertz Commentary adds these remarks:
"In all true art, there is a vital underlying thought, and artists have accordingly been among the greatest thinkers of mankind. An eminent painter of the nineteenth century has well expressed it: 'My intention has not been so much to paint pictures that will charm the eye as to suggest great thoughts that will appeal to the imagination and the heart, and kindle all that is best and noblest in humanity. I even think that, in the future, art may yet speak, as great poetry itself, with the solemn and majestic ring in which the Hebrew prophets spoke to the Jews of old, demanding noble aspirations, condemning in the most trenchant manner private vices, and warning us in deep tones against lapses from morals and duties' (F.W. Watts)."5
Betzalel is the most famous of the few artists mentioned in the Bible. The name Betzalel means "in the shadow of God."6 The fact that the artist stands in the shadow of God should give today's artist even more reason to take his calling seriously.
1Also pronounced oman in modern Hebrew.
2The slight difference in pronunciation is due to the vowel sounds which are indicated by diacritical marks placed below the letters.
3Kevin Stein, Private Poets, Worldly Acts (Ohio University Press, 1996), 4.
4Exodus 35:32, literal translation.
5Pentateuch and Haftorahs, ed. J.H. Hertz (London: Soncino Press, 1988), 375.
6Be = "in"; tzal = "shadow"; el = "God."
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.