The art of tikkun olam: Creating to heal the world

The desire to create is rooted in the core of our humanity. For centuries, humans have felt the need to not only produce functional items that serve a defined purpose or solve a persistent problem but also fashion things of beauty, wonder and mystery. These works of art convey the intangible world of feelings, expressions, and emotions.

Known as artists, the unique individuals who make it their purpose to create, are successful in doing so thanks to their exceptional ability to view the physical world in new and different ways. Their work promotes dialogue by eliciting feelings of love, anger or hope, serves as a warning or a call to action, or inspires a new way forward for society, challenging us to reexamine the way we see the world and how we choose to live in it.

The core Jewish value of tikkun olam, or “healing the world,” stems from the understanding that the world is a fractured place and it is the mission of every individual to both fix and elevate it in his or her own unique way. While artistic creation is not explicitly religious by any means, most art designers would agree that their process does fall within the realm of Tikkun Olam, as art is what happens when they seek to create something for a better world.

What’s more, when we truly understand what it means to be an artist, designer or creator, we gain newfound appreciation for the phrase “creating change,” as artists have the profound ability to quite literally change the world with their creations. Whether social, economic, environmental or otherwise, artists perceive an inequity in our relationships with and responsibilities to the each other and the world and commandeer our senses to change our preconceptions or suggest an actionable solution. Sometimes, their work even moves beyond suggestion, finding the solution and making it real.

A perfect example of the power of art and design to create change and heal the world is the program run by Bezalel Academy of Art and Design Jerusalem with the Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Year after year, Bezalel Academy invites two teaching assistants from Makerere University to join the students in our Ceramics and Glass Department, allowing them to learn new design techniques and providing them with the tools they need to create items that can improve the lives of their fellow citizens in Uganda.

Last year, the teaching assistants from Makerere University reported that their school building was plagued by power outages. Utilizing “local” materials and equipment from Uganda, the Ceramics and Glass Department’s faculty and students worked with the visiting teaching assistants to develop lamps that did not require a consistent power source. This method ensured that the Ugandan research assistants would be able to recreate the fixtures at Makerere University and teach their students how to create them as well.

While our Ugandan guests are the ones who return home with an actionable solution to improve their small corner of the world, our staff and students learn tremendous lessons about what it means to be involved in the creation process, the selflessness required to create real change, the power they possess as artists, and the responsibility that entails. They also learn the true meanings of faith and humility, other core Jewish value, as they must take a huge leap in assuming that their creations will be “the thing” to fix what they have identified as broken.

The Bible teaches us that God molded Adam, the very first man, from the dust of the earth. By choosing the humblest material to create the highest form of earthly creation, God was sending a message to all of mankind, and especially to human creators: the material doesn’t matter, only what you choose to do with it.

Whenever I see my students caught up in the whirlwind of “the process,” driven by the spark of creation, I feel a distinctive sense of pride because I know that they aren’t simply creating baubles to be enjoyed for their aesthetic value but are doing their part to heal the world. As artists and designers, they are always answering a higher calling, creating to inspire a new way forward a better way to see the world and each other. By wielding their creative powers for good, their art transcends into the sphere of the divine.

About the Author
Dr. Eran Ehrlich is the head of the Ceramics & Glass Department at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design Jerusalem (www.bezalel.ac.il).
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