Friday, August 29, 2014

The Story of a Great Artist

My Name Is Asher LevMy Name Is Asher Lev 
by Chaim Potok

“You can do anything you want to do. What is rare is this actual wanting to do a specific thing: wanting it so much that you are practically blind to all other things, that nothing else will satisfy you,.”   ― Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev

What is the source of artistic genius in an individual? Is it a mystery -- of art, the artist, the genius that cannot be taught? This novel is the story of one such individual, Asher Lev, who is one such man. Born with a prodigious artistic ability into a Hasidic Jewish family, Asher is drawn to art from a very early age in a way that mystifies his parents and his community. It is only later after he has been studying for some time with another great artist, Jacob Kahn, that he hears these words from his teacher: "Asher Lev, an artist is a person first. He is an individual. If there is no person there is no artist." (p 257)

Asher's story is one of how he becomes an individual person who is also a great artist. He tells his story in the first person emphasizing on the first page that he is an observant Jew. Yet at the same time confirming that observant Jews are not artists and do not paint at all. The tension between the importance of his cultural traditions and his personal individuality as an artist are present in this beginning and this tension is a presence in his relationships, his development, and even his dreams.
The setting is the 1950s in the time of Joseph Stalin and the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. During Asher's childhood, his budding artistic inclination brings him into conflict with the members of his Jewish community, which values things primarily as they relate to faith and considers art unrelated to religious expression to be at best a waste of time and possibly a sacrilege. Most importantly it brings him into strong conflict with his father, a man who has devoted his life to serving their leader, the Rebbe, by traveling around the world bringing the teachings and practice of their sect to other Jews, and who is by nature incapable of understanding or appreciating art.

Asher's mother is firmly in the midst of this conflict. She has experienced her own trauma from the death of her brother, who was killed while traveling for the Rebbe; she suffers anxiety for her husband's safety during his almost constant traveling. It doesn't just affect her, but it affects her whole family and community. After her anxiety had passed, she decided she wanted to continue her brother’s work.

The Rebbe asks Asher’s father to travel to Vienna, since it would make his work easier. Asher becomes very upset about this and complains that he doesn't want to go to Vienna. His mother decides to stay in Brooklyn with Asher, while his father goes to Vienna. While Asher’s father is away, Asher draws more than ever; "I drew endlessly all those weeks after my father's departure. I drew while I walked; I drew while I ate; I drew while I sat in class; I drew in Yudel Krinsky's store; I drew in the museum." (p 161) His mother brings him a gift of a wooden box oil painting supplies along with an easel and some canvases that December. His first oil painting is of his mother. The conflict with his father continues, however, and it is only through the wisdom of the Rebbe that Asher is allowed to continue and to study with Jacob Kahn, the artist who recognizes in Asher Lev a genius that is even greater than his own. They meet with an exchange of drawings and a recognition that Asher has no choice but to become an artist, and Jacob to become his teacher.

Asher begins to learn by doing, by drawing and painting, by viewing the masters and copying them. His teacher shows him the way by challenging him, but cannot make him an artist. Jacob tells his friend Anna Schaeffer, an art dealer, that Asher's development will take time. "It will be five years. Millions of people can draw. Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way." (p 212) Yet the tension with his tradition remained for Asher. But Jacob would say "As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it. Anything else is what the Communists in Russia call art. I will teach you responsibility to art. Let your Landover Hasidim teach you responsibility to Jews." (p 218)
Asher begins to go to art museums where he studies paintings. He becomes very interested in the paintings, especially the ones of the crucifixions. He starts copying the paintings of the crucifixions and nudes, but this would only get him into trouble. Asher’s father returned home one night after a long trip to Russia for the Rebbe. He then sees Asher’s paintings of the crucifix and nudes and is furious. Asher’s father thinks that his gift is foolish and from the Sitra Achra, or Other Side. Asher’s mother doesn't know whether to support her son or her husband. She is torn between the two of them.
Asher continues to paint and to expand his artistic abilities culminating in several shows and subsequent travel to Europe to study further. He gradually enters a new religion. It is a religion called painting, but never before had a religious Jew been a great painter. 

“I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy. Power to bring pleasure and pain. Power to amuse and horrify. There was in that hand the demonic and the divine at one and the same time. The demonic and the divine were two aspects of the same force. Creation was demonic and divine. Creativity was demonic and divine. I was demonic and divine.”

 He paints and he studies and he broods about his differences with his father. He does not understand even as Jacob tells him "Do not try to understand. Become a great artist." (p278)  Asher's ultimate mastery of his art and his greatest triumph will further test him and demand that he make a choice between his family and his art.

Written in a simple, lucid style, this novel of artistic and personal growth has a power that is difficult to describe. Anyone who has had a passion for living a certain life that may be different than that of your parents or community must be moved by Asher's story. He relates the struggle of individuals everywhere, both those of genius and the rest of us, as we make our own way creating a unique place in the world.

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Anonymous said...

Rarely do you see C. Potok's books on classic reading selections in the 20th C bracket.
I remember his books on my summer reading lists for school. I always avoided them and have to rational reason for my decision.
I will put one of Potok's books on my list and finally read his words.
Wonderful as rightfully sparked my interest for Potok's books.

James said...

Thanks for your observation. My first taste of Potok's writing (The Chosen) was many years ago. I enjoyed him then and even more now. Looking forward to a stage adaptation of Asher Lev this weekend.

Brian Joseph said...

I have not read Potok but after reading your review I would not mind doing so.

Of course the story of how an artist comes to be seems very common throughout literary history. One thing that keeps these interesting is that they are usually not cookie cutter stories. There seems to be as many backgrounds for artists as there are about types of artists.

James said...

Potok provides insight into Jewish culture, especially the Hasidim. The tension between Asher and his father stems from this giving this novel a unique quality.