Chana Zelig is a visual artist and Wexner Heritage Alumna from Chicago. She works on large public installations and private commissions, and is a speaker and writer on advancing a new generation of Jewish art and aesthetics. Chana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through her website, chanazelig.com.
“The root of creativity is discontent with mere being, with just being around in the world.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel)
I started my career as a Jewish artist largely because of my involvement in the Wexner Heritage Program. I discovered that art-making is how I express my Judaism, and that aesthetics is crucial to leadership. Unfortunately, artists’ actions are not meaningfully understood through conventional leadership models, because, although many appreciate what we produce, they don’t know the nature of what we do and how we do it. So, let me draw analogies among art, Wexner and effective leaders.
The arts and humanities inform essential aspects of human experience, and can make us better people and leaders. Artists and leaders share core characteristics: Each has a sense of purpose, an articulated angle of observation and a drive to make marks. Often, their offerings are surprisingly delightful, and other times jarring. But each can help onlookers understand a perspective from outside it, see something of themselves in another’s condition and awaken a feeling of belonging to something greater. Making these connections explicit is what I call “aesthetic leadership.”
My work is a lot like the design of Wexner: I juxtapose various kinds of communication—texts, allusions, images and abstractions—to construct meaning; I honor individuals through shared cultural vocabulary, draw deeply from Jewish scholarship to compose visual divrei Torah and employ whichever medium will best communicate experiences that transcend language. Communally, I aspire to broaden possibilities, loosen ingrained categories and open our hearts to divinity. Considered in these terms, aesthetic leadership should be a goal of institutional, social and spiritual life.
Artists add unique insight to organizations. They may provide alternative ways of seeing problems and history in ways that either complement or contradict conventional wisdom. This is different from creative, “out-of-the-box” thinking, but, instead, entails artistic ways of knowing. That is why artists have been increasingly called upon in administrations–as visionaries, inspirers and makers. But since much of art’s energy comes from an oblique point of view, lay-leaders tend to attribute to artists an “outsider” mystique, in spite of performing leadership functions.
Art spurs social change. When it is site-specific, public art leads people toward awareness and contemplation through sensory rather than verbal information. I saw two stunning examples in Berlin, at Holocaust memorial installations. One, designed by Peter Eisenman, takes up an entire city block. Its real power exists in the void spaces; the almost venous walkways between stone rectangles. (I discovered later that Eisenman also designed the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio). The other example: at Berlin’s Jewish Museum. Sculptor Menashe Kadishman’s Shalechet, Fallen Leaves, fills a tight, void corner with thousands of rusted iron disks engraved with stylized faces, which make a “clackety” noise when one walks on them. Works like these are wordlessly powerful. And leaders like Eisenman and Kadishman succeed not through organizational constructs, but by sharing an aesthetic vision and identifying absences. They function as exemplars of leadership in their own right and offer lessons for leaders within organizations, business and government.
Good public art reflects and reveals our shared humanity, and Jewish public art uses our common cultural vocabulary. While rooted in mesorah, tradition, my public installations are fundamentally about relationships. For instance, sanctuary windows I made for a suburban-Chicago synagogue are based on aggadot about the profound community drama of the revelation, “All of Israel Saw the Letters”. The fact that people with no Jewish background say they learned about Judaism from the artwork, says to me it provides an axis for conversation. Similarly, honoring someone’s life in my biographical commissions sparks recognition by those who will never meet him or her. When I combine Jewish texts and images, I invite a viewer to engage the tradition while experiencing connection.
In spiritual life, art provides moments of transcendence and meaning. Works that are virtuosic, ethically conceived and authentic can be metaphors for the intangible. The visual and performing arts evoke the same sense of wonder that ritual aims for. And that wonder is a kind of holiness. Judaism is a unique path to such holiness in its synthesis of “performance art” and intellectual rigor. That’s ultimately what makes my work “Jewish:” I’m not just going for ornament, renderings or quotations, and I’m not just conveying my inner life and observations, and I’m not just trying to serve ritual or educational functions. Rather, my work exists in the meeting of object, experience and study.
Inasmuch as artists have the potential to lead us to transcendent moments, aesthetic leadership…picks up where this sentence trails off.
I’ll leave you with another quote from Heschel:
“To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words”