For Marc Bregmans
excellent foray into the visualization of midrash to work, we are going to
have to follow the advice of Edward Kessler when he writes, "although
artistic interpretation is bound to the biblical text, it has developed its
own rules of interpretation." At the same time, we need to consider quite
skeptically any and all claims regarding the absolute difference said to distinguish
visual from textual media. As a scholar of midrash, Marc pays close examination
to the word play that informs the text. In doing so, he notes not so much
the prevalence of visual experience per se, but rather to ideas about visual
experience. "What did he see? "Do you see what I see," "Since
you do not see." In particular, Bregman notes how spiritual vision goes
beyond optical vision in the midrashic account of the Aqedah. Abraham and
Isaac see Gods presence, his servants only deserts. Marcs splendid
analysis brings midrash into conversation, not just with visual art per se,
but with the modern arts of surrealism and cinema --even as the rhetoric that
attends this short essay works to privilege midrash over art.
I would have wished
that Marc had done more to question the sharp distinction between plastic
art and verbal text. With his own eye towards Christian sarcophagai and church
decoration, he adapts a misleading dichotomy to the comparative study of Jewish
narrative art and Christian graphic art. According to this schema, the mental/textual
image proves highly "imaginative" in contrast to the graphic image
that remains only "naturalistic." In this view, "the graphic
artist portrays the scene to the eye." (4) By this, I think Marc means
the physical eye. In contrast, midrash "portrays the scene to and through
the imaginative faculty of the minds eye." In setting
up this opposition, Marc either ignores or overlooks an emerging scholarly
consensus regarding the relationship between graphic and verbal images. For
instance, the most "naturalistic" and apparently "unmediated"
and "self-interpreting" graphic image depends upon a host of conventions
that mediate meanings not always confined to the world of visible nature.
Note the almost complete lack of perspectival depth in the sarcophagai and
cathedral images discussed in Marcs essay, the size of the lamb looms
large (fig1), the dwarfed tree next to Abraham and Isaac (fig2), the schematic
arrangement of the figures in a line. As such, it does not seem right to say
that midrash reflects the minds eye and Christian graphic art the physical
Indeed, the claim
that the Aqedah image taken from Regensburg Pentateuch is "about as close
as graphic art can come to portraying seeing with the mind"
does not jibe with Marcs own recourse to surrealism as a way to characterize
the midrashic text. Why draw on the visual arts to interpret a midrashic text
if they remain so limited? And will this not require great care when it comes
to the use of adapting modern art styles to pre-modern texts? We dont
see in the midrashic account discussed by Marc the interest in dreams, the
unconscious, and sex that might have justified the term "surrealism."
But we can see the pent-up pathos that characterized the world of German Expressionism.
Clearly, scholars in Judaic Studies need to pay far more critical attention
to style. Indeed, the Beit Alpha Aqedah discussed by Kessler (fig.7) looks
like nothing if not an image that Paul Klee might have created. The line that
marks the misshapen figures lack the firm contours displayed in the sarcophagai
depictions The oversized lamb posed vertically, Isaac floating, the child-like
and schematic depiction of the palm trees, the interpenetration of language
into the visual field, all of this calls into serious question any attempt
to distinguish plastic art and narrative art in terms of "optical naturalism"
versus the "minds eye." Marcs turning Judaic Studies
to visual art and to the idea of vision makes great and important sense, but
this will entail spending much more time looking closely at pictures and their
relationship to language, without privileging the latter over the former.