Photo Credit: Rabbi Reuven Fierman
Rabbi Reuven Fierman

As part of Israel’s return to pre-corona existence, concerts, theatrical plays, and movies will now be permitted in Israel with a maximum audience of 250 people. While this announcement by Israel’s government was welcomed by art lovers, theater owners, artists, actors, and technical crews, one critic was displeased. He believes art and the culture are absolute dangers to society.

While still in Russia – before he became observant and made aliyah – Rabbi Reuven Fierman earned a Master’s degree in art and theater and quoted from the works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekov the way he now quotes from the writings of the Maharal, the Baal HaTanya, and Rav Kook.

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In Israel, “just for the fun of it,” a friend invited him to Bet-El to hear a few Torah lectures; he ended up staying for 10 years. Today, in addition to teaching Jewish Studies at several Torah institutions, he lectures widely on a broad range of subjects and holds a PhD in sociology and education from Tel Aviv University.

His popular new book, Victims of Culture – a critical examination of the arts – was published earlier this year and is already in its second printing.

The Jewish Press: What do you find so poisonous in Western culture and art?

Rabbi Fierman: There is art created for religious purposes, such as the works of Bezalel and Oholiav. But there is also art that promotes evil. These works of art are filled with impurity and moral pollution and harm everyone who has contact with them.

While this statement may sound alarmist, philosophers in various eras wrote about the harm art and literature can bring upon mankind. In ancient Greece, a strong aversion to certain works of art arose. For example, Plato wrote that art contributed to the development of mankind but insisted that it could cause profound damage. His conclusion was absolute: art causes more harm than benefit. This opinion is expressed in his classic treatise, The Republic.

Have other noteworthy writers shared Plato’s dim view of the arts?

The well-known French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau was also a harsh critic of so-called “culture.” He asserted that culture transforms man into an egotistical and lust-filled creature, places him in constant competition with others, and causes him to be a jealous liar.

In his first book, A Discussion on the Moral Influence of Art and Science, he extensively criticizes culture in general, and more specifically the arts. Rousseau’s criticism triggered a great debate throughout Europe.

George Hegel, the famous German philosopher, also believed art and culture could harm an individual. He claimed that in the future – when humanity’s moral level will become elevated – there would be absolutely no need for the arts.

Can you cite a few examples of works of art that you consider harmful?

One of the most famous classic Greek plays is called Medea, written by Euripides some 2,500 years ago. The drama tells the story of Medea, a king’s daughter, who falls in love with Jason, a Greek warrior. He plans to steal the “Golden Fleece” from the king, which is a magical coat of golden wool woven from a ram of Zeus.

Medea aids him in his goal, flees with him from the palace, and they marry. They give birth to two children whom Jason adores. Time passes and Jason falls in love with another woman and decides to divorce his wife. In her anger, Medea kills their two children.

It would seem that Medea is a contemptuous character who behaves in a clearly forbidden manner. Nonetheless, to our astonishment, Medea is considered an admirable heroine who justifiably takes up arms against the wrong her husband inflicted upon her. According to Greek mythology, the gods help her. Medea came to be a celebrated figure of many works of art, pictured on giant decorative urns and on the walls of palaces.

But this took place a long time ago when mankind was less developed.

Unfortunately, to our deep chagrin, modern culture also views Medea in a heroic light. Dozens of literary works have been created in her honor. Novels, plays, songs, and poems declare her praise. Some 40 musical pieces herald her exalted story – operas, ballets, and symphonies included.

Hundreds of theatrical plays are performed in her name the world over. Rembrandt, Delacroix, and others painters have immortalized her personage. More recently, leading filmmakers have made Medea the central character in movies and television productions.

Making people like Medea into glorified heroines isn’t uncommon – not only in ancient Greek culture, but on Broadway and HaBimah Theater in Tel Aviv. Let’s not forget about Oedipus who killed his father and married his mother; Cronus who ate his children while they were still alive; and other perverse stories that are considered the foundations of classic Greek theater and are studied today in high schools and universities around the world.

Modern-day art and literature critics admit that culture can have a very negative influence on society. For example, George Bataille, in his study “Literature and Evil,” analyzes the works of famous authors such as Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, Jean Genet, and others. He claims the perpetration of evil became an ideal in many of their works. Horrific atrocities, the shattering of norms, and crimes are not depicted as moral collapse and sin, but rather as the ideal and as a reason to feel proud of one’s individualism.

As you speak, the recent movie “The Joker” comes to mind. In this popular but dark tale of depression, psychosis, and despair, a murderous villain is transformed into a hero as the viewer identifies with the hardships he endured in life. Perversion, craziness, and murder become understandable – even justified and applauded.

One can intellectually postulate that people are not stupid, and that every thinking person knows to differentiate between good and evil and between fictional characters and reality, and that after having watched a stirring stage play or movie filled with murder, no theater-goer will return home and murder his father or wife.

Nevertheless, it often happens that after watching a movie or play, a person begins to act, for a period of time, like the main character in the drama. There are many reliable studies confirming this phenomenon, and many deviant acts have been perpetrated by unhappy people who watched a movie filled with violence or rape, and then went out onto the streets and copied what they saw.

This pernicious effect is so prevalent it has even been given a name: the “Werther Effect.” More than 200 years ago, the well-known German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe authored a novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Upon the book’s publication, a mass reaction broke out among young people, and readers started to dress in the same clothes that Werther wore – yellow pants, blue vest, coat, and hat. Other items became popular such as a drinking cup like Werther’s, his shaving lather, and cookies bearing his name.

Lo and behold, at the novel’s climax, betrayed in love, the young Werther commits suicide by shooting himself in the head. Fans who wanted to be faithful to their hero until the last – and in Germany there were many – continued to emulate him until the bitter end by blowing out their own brains.

In your book, Victims of Culture, you have some disturbing things to say about Michelangelo, perhaps the most famous artist of all time.

After the Middle Ages, the Italians became drunk with freedom. As a result of this awakening, an incredible flourishing occurred in literature, the arts, science, medicine, and music. Art replaced religion, and painters, sculptors, composers, and writers became the most important figures in society.

The tremendous admiration the general public showed them bordered on idolatry. Some of these cultural heroes were even given the title “Il Divino” – meaning, “the Divine.” Michelangelo was awarded this title. He became a personal friend of Pope Julius II and was on close terms with the Medici family who ruled over Florence.

Surrounded by deification, Michelangelo came to fancy himself above the law. Everything was permitted to him, he imagined, for art was more exalted than morality, religion, and the accepted norms of the times. If, for the sake of art, an artist had to violate a law in the time of Michelangelo, the deed was considered not only justifiable, but the most proper thing to do.

For example, Michelangelo wanted to learn anatomy in order to draw with the utmost realism. However, in that day and age, there were no courses offered with actual anatomical models. So what was his solution? He stole buried bodies from the cemetery and then slice them open. It sounds rather ghoulish, but that is precisely what he did for many years.

Irving Stone, who wrote the most comprehensive biography of the heralded artist, The Agony and the Ecstasy, explains in detail how the gifted illustrator defiled the bodies. In several places, the biographer hints that Michelangelo wasn’t only a cruel sadist, but also a necrophile.

When Michelangelo was 24, one of the most important personages in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Jean de Billheres, commissioned the young artist to make a sculpture called “Pieta” with the intention of depicting the “death of G-d” – the Christian messiah dying in his mother’s lap.

Michelangelo had a queer idea: to sculpt the work in a manner that the viewer would have the illusion that the dying figure in the statue was on the verge of passing from life to death. In order to achieve this effect, the sculptor had to find a model to study with his own eyes. He wanted to see how muscles twitch during the last spasms of life so he could capture this moment.

Michelangelo spent many days in a hospital at the bedsides of dying patients, but didn’t manage to be present at the “right” moment. He almost gave up in despair until his mind flashed with a “genius” idea. He himself would create the moment of death with one of the beggars of Florence. He would simply sacrifice the fellow on the altar of art.

Happy with his plan, he invited a poor soul to his house, poisoned him, and as the body of the beggar quivered with the spasms of death, Michelangelo sat opposite him and quickly sketched several expertly-drawn illustrations of the moment in order to incorporate this touch of reality into his sculpture.

The story became known and a scandal arose. According to Irving Stone, people sought to bring Michelangelo to court on charges of murder. In response to the public pressure, the authorities in Florence arrested the sculptor. To save him, though, the respected Cardinal Jeans de Billheres, who had commissioned the statue, managed to appoint himself the chief judge on the court investigation committee.

He concluded that there wasn’t factual evidence to charge Michelangelo. Thus, the sculptor was released from prison, free to finish his work.

This gory tale isn’t widely known. Why not?

In my book, I give a list of reliable sources that discuss the murder. Knowledge of the crime has passed from generation to generation and still arouses anger. Occasionally, someone steps forward and demands that “Pieta” not be shown to the public.

There have also been protests with people demanding that the sculpture be destroyed for having come to life, so to speak, as a result of murder. Opposition to the statue led Church pontiffs at the Vatican to surround the “Pieta” with unbreakable fiberglass. Until this day, the “statue of mercy” is the only sculpture there that is safeguarded (or imprisoned) in a glass booth.

In terms of the general public, you are right that a majority of art historians and encyclopedias have not written about the murder. Why? The simple and bitter reason is that today, too, there exists a similar deification of artists, which requires white-washing their shortcomings.

Unfortunately, even the academic world, which is supposed to be a fortress of objectivity and intellectual truth, doesn’t portray the superheroes of art in a true fashion. Academics speak of them as the most enlightened species of mankind, and not as common citizens, people of flesh and blood, who simply know how to sing nicely, dance, write, or paint in a gifted manner.

How do your students react to your critical assertions, which certainly can’t be called politically correct?

During one of my university lectures, a student insisted, “What do I care about the private life of an artist? Even if he is totally evil, if I receive beneficial revelations about life, or feelings of inspiration from his work, then I’ll take them for what they are. If there are negative things, I reject them.”

I answered him, “The moral character of an artist seeps into his creations. Even a landscape or [an ordinary] song leaves an impression, whether we are conscious of it or not.”

It must be pointed out that it’s not always possible to identify the dangers hidden in the artists’ creations. This is especially true if the pollution has already been absorbed into the psyche of the viewer or reader, which makes him wont to say, “What’s the big problem? All of my life I have been exposed to works of art like these, and they didn’t affect me adversely in the least!”

I told this student that after the explosion in the nuclear plant in Chernobyl, a group of workers were sent to work there, even though a very strong radioactive leak continued to be present at the work site. A TV reporter stood near the entrance to the power station and asked them if they weren’t afraid.

“Certainly not,” the brave workers replied. “We already worked there yesterday and didn’t feel a thing. You don’t have to create a big panic out of every situation.” A week later, all of the workers were in a hospital, on the verge of death. Dying alongside them was the TV reporter, who had followed them into the Chernobyl power plant.

This example applies to art as well. Every encounter with a work of art resembles walking into a laboratory filled with dangerous substances. True, on the shelves of the lab, there are many chemicals from which life-saving medicines can be made. But there are also poisonous materials. Therefore, in my opinion, a sign of warning must be placed by the entrance, with an illustration of a skull and crossbones, in order to publicize the danger.

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