Kabbalah of Creative Process in a Postdigital Age
KABBALAH AS A SPIRITUAL BAR CODE
I hear the word kabbalah spoken frequently in Israel where I live. I hear it from the supermarket checkout clerk when she hands me the long paper ribbon saying, “kabbalah shelkhah,” “your receipt.” The Hebrew word kabbalah means “receipt.” In addition to its use in mundane affairs, kabbalah is the hidden wisdom of the deep structure of Jewish consciousness received from generation to generation.
It is appropriate that both a supermarket computer printout and the Jewish mystical tradition share the same word. We all stand illiterate before the secret language of the digital age that only supermarket lasers can read — the bar code on boxes, bottles, and cans. Kabbalah is a down-to-earth spiritual tradition that provides a symbolic language — a spiritual bar code for exploring how Divine energies are drawn down into our everyday world.
This Times of Israel blog post is based on my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life http://photographgod.com and its forthcoming sequel Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media.
TEN STAGES IN THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Kabbalah has created a Tree of Life model to describe ten stages (sephirot) in the creative process that brings thoughts and emotions into the world of action, the kingdom of time and space. Thoughts represented by the cognitive sephirot of Wisdom and Understanding are synthesized as Knowledge. The Bible uses the same words, Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge, to describe both human creativity and God’s creation of the universe.
It teaches that the artist is “filled with a Divine spirit, with Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge and with artistic talent” (Exodus 31:3). A parallel biblical passage teaches: “God founded the earth in Wisdom, established heavens in Understanding, and with Knowledge the depths opened and skies dripped dew” (Proverbs 3:19-20).
It draws six affective sephirot from the biblical verse, “Yours God are the Compassion, the Strength, the Beauty, the Success, the Splendor, and the Foundation of everything in heaven and earth” (Chronicles 1:29). The ninth sephirah of Foundation funnels all the earlier eight sephirot of the worlds of will, mind and emotions into the tenth sephirah of Kingdom in the world of action.
Gaining insight into your process of forming something new can offer you some inkling of God in action creating the world.
ALTERNATIVE VIEWS OF CREATIVE PROCESS
I use kabbalah to analyze my creative process in two artworks – Subway Angels and Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim. Subway Angels, part of my “Digitized Homage to Rembrandt” series, integrates photography with painting, serigraphy and text. Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim is a biofeedback system for creating digital self-generated portraits that I created at the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. Both offer alternative views into the creative process that provide a conceptual model for understanding creative process.
WISDOM FROM NOTHINGNESS
The first stage in the creative process is the sephirah Crown (Keter) – the will to create coupled with faith that one can create and anticipation that the creative process is pleasurable. Without this intention, self-confidence, and hope for gratification, the creative process has no beginning.
Crown sets the stage for the sephirah of Wisdom (Hokhmah) that requires a selfless state, nullification of the ego that opens gateways to supraconscious and subconscious realms. When active seeking ceases, when consciously preoccupied with unrelated activities, when we least expect it, the germ of the creative idea bursts into our consciousness. This sudden flash of insight is what the kabbalah calls Wisdom. It is the transition from nothingness to being, from potential to the first moment of existence. In the Bible’s words, “Wisdom shall be found in nothingness” (Job 28:12).
The process of creating Subway Angels began in a small Hasidic synagogue in Brooklyn following the reading of the weekly Bible portion from the handwritten Torah scroll. I listened to the ancient Hebrew words, translating them into English in my mind. As an artist, listening to the chanting of the passage describing the attributes of the Bible’s prototypic artist Bezalel made me feel at home. The passage tells how Bezalel is filled with Divine spirit, wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, and talent for all types of craftsmanship to make all manner of MeLekHet MakHSheVeT (Exodus 35:33). Usually translated as “artistic work,” MeLekHet MakHSheVeT literally means “thoughtful craft.”
At that moment, I was living in the Crown sephirah. I subconsciously intended to create artworks; I had faith in my ability to create artworks; and I felt that I would derive pleasure from the process of making art. However, it was the Sabbath and I was removed from my studio, from my classroom where I taught computer graphics, and from my office as head of the art department at Pratt Institute.
Indeed, the definition of Sabbath rest is to refrain from making MeLekHet MakHSheVeT. The Sabbath day is biblically defined as the Non-Art day. It is the day in which all work on the Tabernacle was suspended. To this day, an observant Jew on the Sabbath avoids doing any of the 39 categories of thoughtful craft that went into the biblical artists’ creation of the Tabernacle.
My absorption in the rhythm of the chanting of the Torah put me into a meditative state. I was passively listening, open to receiving. The stage was set for the sephirah of Wisdom.
In a flash of insight I realized that as a male artist, I needed to create computer angels. It suddenly dawned on me that the biblical term for “art,” MeLekHeT MakHSheVeT, is feminine. Its masculine form is MaLakH MakHSheV, literally “computer angel.” Art is a computer angel when biblical Hebrew meets modern Hebrew in a postdigital world.
Like the sperm that is received by the ovum in the womb, the unformed germ of an idea from the sephirah of Wisdom enters into the sephirah of Understanding (Binah). This union of Wisdom and Understanding is Knowledge, as Adam knew Eve.
As soon as the synagogue service came to an end, I rushed to explain to my wife that I needed to make computer angels. “You need to make what?” she responded incredulously. As I transformed my unformed insight into words to explain my thoughts to her, I entered into the sephirah of Understanding.
All manner of thoughts entered my mind on ways to create computer angels. The shapeless idea that ignited the process began to take form in the sephirah of Understanding. Together, Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge form the cognitive realm of thoughts. Knowledge both unites Wisdom and Understanding and is the gateway to the next six sephirot that form the affective realm of emotions.
FROM OPENNESS TO SETTING LIMITS
The fourth sephirah of Compassion (Hesed) is openness to all possibilities. I thought of the hundreds of artistic options open to me in creating computer angels and I loved them all. Compassion is counterbalanced by the fifth sephirah of Strength (Gevurah), the strength to set limits, to make judgments, to choose between myriad options. It demands that I make hard choices about which paths to take and which options to abandon. What angel images do I digitize? What media do I use? Should I make paintings, lithographs, serigraphs, etchings, photographs, videos, multimedia works, or telecommunication events in which cyberangels fly around the planet via satellites?
I recalled that a few weeks earlier, my son Ron had sent me an article on Rabbi Kook’s views that the light in Rembrandt’s paintings was the hidden light of the first day of Creation. At the time, Ron was archivist at Beit Harav Kook in Jerusalem, the residence of the late kabbalist and chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook. It became clear that I needed to digitize Rembrandt’s angels in his drawings and etchings.
I planned to visit the print room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I could look at original Rembrandt drawings and etchings and select angel images. I knew he had created a number of artworks of Jacob’s dream.
“A ladder was standing on the ground, and its top reached up toward heaven, and angels were going up and down on it” (Genesis 28:12).
Since angels first go up before they go down, they must start their ascent from the lowest of places. I thought that in New York City, perhaps angels fly up from the subways. I would paint on subway posters and silk-screen print on them digitized Rembrandt angels and spiritual messages from underground.
As I felt satisfaction with my choice, I departed from the sephirah of Strength to the next stage, the sixth sephirah of Beauty (Tiferet). This sephirah represents a beautiful balance between the counterforces of Compassion and Strength. It is the feeling of harmony between all my possible options and the choices I had made. Beauty is the aesthetic core of the creative process in which harmonious integration of openness and closure is experienced as deeply felt beauty. The closure of having chosen to have cyberangels fly out of subway placards gave me the feeling that all is going well.
The seventh sephirah of Success (Netzah) is the feeling of being victorious in the quest for significance. I felt that I had the power to overcome any obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing my artwork. Netzah can also mean “to conduct” or “orchestrate” as in the word that begins many of the Psalms. I had the confidence that I could orchestrate all the aspects of creating a multimedia symphony of computer angels arising from the bowels of New York City.
The eight sephirah of Splendor (Hod) is the glorious feeling that the final shaping of the idea is going so smoothly that it seems as effortless as the splendid movements of a graceful dancer. The sephirah of Success is an active self-confidence in contrast with the sephirah of Splendor which is a passive confidence born of a trust in Divine providence that “all will be good.” It is the power to advance smoothly with the determination and perseverance born of deep inner commitment. It is the wonderful feeling that all is going as it should.
The ninth sephirah of Foundation (Yesod) is the sensuous bonding of Success and Splendor in a union that leads to the birth of the fully formed idea. It funnels the integrated forces of intention, thought, and emotions of the previous eight sephirot into the world of physical action. In Chronicles 1:29, this sephirah is called All or Everything (kol). It channels everything that was playing out in my mind into the craft of making the artwork. It transports my private mental world into a public environmental arena in which I can create a product to communicate my ideas to others.
This tenth sephirah of Kingdom (Malkhut) is the noble realization of my concepts and feelings in the kingdom of time and space. It involves all the practical details that go into physically making an artwork.
I began the realization of my concepts by going to the company that places advertising posters in subway cars. They gave me fifty different placards on which I painted and silk-screened printed angels and spiritual messages. On one of them, I used deep blue acrylic paint to paint out the copy on an English muffin ad that showed a large photo of a muffin with a bite taken out of it. I printed a computer angel in silver ink next to the missing piece of the muffin and printed a new text in gold ink: “The biblical words for angel and food are written with the same four Hebrew letters to tell us that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life.”
Exhibiting my Subway Angels series was a culminating activity that gave me the opportunity to stand back and look at what I had done. This activity is parallel to the Divine act on the seventh day when God looked at the completed Creation and saw that it was good. My sense of satisfaction, however, began to turn into a feeling of postpartum emptiness. I had given over my creations to the world and they were no longer mine to possess.
The tenth sephirah of Kingdom, the realm of physical reality was being transformed into the first sephirah of Crown, returning to nothingness permeated by an undefined longing to create anew. The process had come full circle. The sephirot of Kingdom and Crown, the end and the beginning, merge into a single sephirah as the creative process is renewed.
CREATING INTERACTIVE SELF-PORTRAITS
I repeat the process of my creating an artwork to help you use the kabbalistic model to become aware of your creative process as you photograph God and creating a Bible blog your life. Here I describe how I created Inside/Outside:P’nim/Panim, a responsive artwork through which internal mind/body processes and one’s facial countenance engage in dialogue. Participants in Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim create a live feedback loop as they photograph themselves.
INTENTION TO INSIGHT
My process once again began in synagogue on the Sabbath day. I was absorbed in the rhythm of the chanting of words from the Torah scroll following them with my eyes. I was far removed from my studio/laboratory at MIT when I suddenly realized that the Hebrew words for face panim and for inside p’nim are written with the same Hebrew letters. This flash of awareness that outside and inside are linguistically one is the sudden transition from Crown to Wisdom, from intention to insight.
When I told my son what had just dawned on me, my mind left the sephirah of Wisdom for the sephirah of Understanding. The linguistic insight that ignited the process began to take form as an artwork in Understanding. I sensed that I needed to create portraits in which dialogue between the outside face and inside feelings become integrated in a single artwork.
HARMONIOUS INTEGRATION OF OPENNESS AND CLOSURE
The first three sephirot symbolize the artist’s intention to create and the cognitive dyad of Wisdom-Understanding in which a flash of insight begins to crystallize into a viable idea.
The fourth sephirah, Compassion, symbolizes largess, the stage in the creative process that is open to all possibilities, myriad attractive options that I would love to do. I thought of a multitude of artistic options opened to me for creating artworks that reveal interplay between inner consciousness and outer face.
Compassion is counterbalanced by the fifth sephirah of Strength, restraint, the power to set limits, to make judgments, to have the discipline to choose between myriad options. It demands that I make hard choices about which paths to take and which options to abandon. As an MIT research fellow with access to electronic technologies, my mind gravitated to creating digital self-generated portraits in which internal mind/body processes and one’s facial countenance engage in dialogue through a biofeedback interface.
The balance between the affective dyad Compassion-Strength is the sephirah of Beauty. As I felt satisfaction with my choice, I departed from the sephirah of Strength to the next stage, the sixth sephirah, Beauty, the aesthetic core of the creative process in which harmonious integration of openness and closure elicits an exquisite feeling.
ORCHESTRATING DRY PIXELS AND WET BIOMOLECULES
The seventh sephirah, Success, is the feeling of being victorious in the quest for significance. I felt that I had the power to overcome any obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing my artwork. I had the confidence that I could orchestrate all the aspects of creating a moist media artwork that would forge a vital dialogue between dry pixels and wet biomolecules, between digital imagery and human consciousness. The eighth sephirah, Splendor, is the splendid feeling that the final shaping of the idea is going so smoothly that it seems as effortless as the graceful movements of a skilled dancer.
CREATING A BIOFEEDBACK LOOP
The ninth sephirah, Foundation, is the sensuous bonding of Success and Gracefulness in a union that leads to the birth of the fully formed idea. It funnels the integrated flow of intention, thought, and emotion of the previous eight sephirot into the world of physical action, into the tenth sephirah of Kingdom, the noble realization of my concepts and feelings in the kingdom of time and space. It is my making the artwork.
I constructed a console in which a participant seated in front of a monitor places her finger in a plethysmograph, a device that measures internal body states by monitoring blood flow, while under the gaze of a video camera. Digitized information about her internal mind/body processes triggers changes in the image of herself that she sees on the monitor. She sees her face changing color, stretching, elongating, extending, rotating, or replicating in response to her feelings about seeing herself changing. My artwork, Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim, created a flowing digital feedback loop in which mind/body state p’nim effects changes in one’s face panim, and panim, in turn, effects changes in p’nim. It creates living self-generated, interactive, digital portraits in the Kingdom of space and time.