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The Future of Digital Art: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness

by Mel Alexenberg
Intellect, Bristol, UK, 2006
224 pp., illus. Trade, $59.95
ISBN: 9781841501369.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This book is as much about religion, specifically Judaism, and spirituality as it is about art, and in a covert way, it is also highly political. Like the Torah itself that Alexenberg refers to regularly, the book is complex. He writes in a lively, engaging style, and whilst the book is heavily biased, I found it informative, optimistic, and spiritually refreshing.

To Alexenberg’s credit, his bias is fully and proudly declared. He is a practicing and devout Jew, and this, of course, tempers his entire philosophical outlook. He finds many profound similarities between Hebraic consciousness and postmodern art, which are amazingly insightful and clearly explained. The postmodern art that he chooses to discuss is the positive, optimistic minority. Much of postmodern art engages the viewer in a hermeneutic vicious circle of depression, hopelessness, and nihilism. If you doubt this, see The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and Depression (reviewed Leonardo Reviews June 2006).

As the subtitle, From Hellenistic To Hebraic Consciousness, suggests the book covers a lot of history, specifically religious and art history. Alexenberg looks at the "End of Art" concept in which he argues that we are not witnessing the end of art, "but the end of art derived from a Hellenistic structure of consciousness. The contemporary redefinition of art is emerging from a Hebraic consciousness as expressed through the Oral Torah" (p. 33). Shame nobody told the rest of the non-Jewish world! The first part of this statement seems quite true, but the latter is either nonsense or very poorly expressed. If Alexenberg means postmodern art has many similarities to the dynamic, conceptual attributes of the Torah all right; however, if he means that it has come about directly from the Torah, this is naive in the extreme. This view highlights my main criticism of this book, which is the Judaeo-Christian insularism that accompanies many American author’s cultural/philosophical studies. Leaving the art of minority indigenous cultures aside for a moment, the postmodernist art of Asian societies (underpinned by Buddhism), of Chinese society (informed by Taoism) and the huge atheist populations of Western societies has no basis in the Torah at all; in fact, most of these people have never heard of the Torah!

This insularism does nothing to diminish Alexenberg’s intellectual rigour, insightful approaches to Jewish culture and art and positive approach to the future. It is just that we need to realise in reading this book exactly where he is coming from. Having said this, it is interesting to note Alexenberg’s acute awareness of the Islamic-Arabic culture, so much so that one of his own major artworks deals with the Middle East "situation" specifically. Cyberangels: Aesthetic Peace Plan for the Middle East is detailed in Leonardo (p. 185) vol. 39, no. 3, 2006 and also in this book (p. 54-57), together with many other of Alexenberg’s artworks. This work compares Israel, a tiny land within the huge Arab world, with the "fault" deliberately woven into traditional Muslim kilims. Israel needs to exist and be respected in accordance with the Islamic concept that only Allah is perfect. This artwork is brilliantly conceived, the concept of helping achieve Middle East peace through a visual artwork, laden with deep and complex philosophical and political information, is surely unique and perhaps the only possible way this may be achieved.

The book has a substantial Introduction together with an excellent Index and four well annotated chapters with the following titles: 1— Semiotic Perspectives – Redefining Art in a Digital Age, 2 — Morphological Perspectives – Space-Time Structures of Visual Culture, 3 — Kabbalistic Perspectives – Creative Process in Art and Science, 4 — Hatakhic Perspectives – Creating a Beautiful Life.

This book as the back cover states is, "A revolutionary investigation into the aesthetic form that imaginatively envisages the vast potential of art in a cyber future." It is worth mentioning that the book is not specifically about digital art but art generally in our digital age. Let’s hope that such a future embodies spiritual, not necessarily religious values, which will enable us to realise our full potential. Spiritual is not used here as synonymous with religion. The wisdom expressed throughout The Future of Art In A Digital Age will help in its own small way to help us realise this potential.



Updated 1st December 2006

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