»The life of a designer is a life of fight, to fight against the ugliness. Just like a doctor fights against a disease. For us, visual disease is what we have all around, and what we try to do is to cure it somehow with design.«
—Massimo Vignelli (1931–2014)
We moved to Israel almost 13 years ago. And ever since, I am observing a fascinating unfolding and evolving of my manifold layers of identity. As a woman and mother, an artist and designer, as a German and European, as a Jewess and Israeli.
In this unique position — to use a phrase by Carl Gustav Jung — I carry more than one collective unconscious inside of me. Culturally, socially and — as an artist — not to forget aesthetically.
Collective Unconscious No. 1: European Artist
I grew up with centuries of European art and design history as an ever-present part of my aesthetic conscience. As a visual artist and designer, I am constantly exposed to the different varieties of people’s individual aesthetics that are always bound to the cultures they grew up or live in.
Aesthetics are always a static as well as a developing concept.
Static … because as human beings we all possess an inborn longing for beauty. Not in a superficial way, but in this essential way that connects us to the beauty of nature and creation. All art and design draw its inspiration from these sources.
Developing … because those longings, in the end, are intertwined with the aesthetics of the time and culture we live in.
I have the pleasure and privilege of working with international customers. So I am regularly confronted with these changing aesthetic backgrounds, and forced to acknowledge, understand them and adjust to them.
One thing though they all have in common: they all think inside their known cultural aesthetic boxes. Depending on what the individual box looks like that is often a challenging endeavor for the designer, in particular when you try to break through these programming concepts, stereotyped perceptions, and ideas.
Collective Unconscious No. 2: Israeli Jew
I am a modern-orthodox Jewish artist. The term Jewish Art is a relatively new one, as Judaism until recently was believed to have been aniconic, in biblical times even iconoclastic. The term »Jewish Art« itself was first used as late as 1878 by the Austrian scholar David Kaufmann, who is considered the founder of the scholarly discipline of Jewish art history.
»It is Kaufmann’s own merit to have uncovered this art. Not only did he have to prove that such an art existed, he also had to prove that it could exist, as he showed that the idea that the prohibition of images would obstruct the development of such an art was mistaken, and even established it as an irrefutable fact that the art in wide areas was not prohibited insofar as no worship was associated with it.« —Dr. Samuel Kraus, 1901
The Rambam – The Guide for the Perplexed | Mixed Media on Two Canvases © Hidur Design Works
European Artist meets Modern-Orthodox Israeli Jew
After we had moved to Israel, I started to examine Jewish art in Israel. To be more precise, the available printed Judaica in the graphic design sector. And I couldn’t help but feel that there was something fundamentally lacking in both aesthetic concept and quality.
Most of the available booklets or folders for prayers like Grace after Meals (Birkat HaMazon) or the Songs for Shabbat (Zmiros) are cheapest productions, lacking any sense of aesthetics, either poorly designed or hopelessly kitschy — most of the time both.
The available greeting cards display ever the same Magen David, Shabbat Candles, Kiddush cups, Israeli flags or images of the Western Wall. Outside symbolism that doesn’t require a lot of thinking and feeling. And to be brutally honest: Not a lot of fun and pleasure to use them or put them on your festive holiday or Shabbat table, with its special table clothe and Grandma’s silverware and expensive beautiful silver Kiddush cups. Something had to be done.
Zmirot – Shabbat Songs of Praise | Hardcover Booklet with thread stitched case binding © Hidur Design Works
»Why do people invest so much in one area but are so negligent in the other?«, I had to ask myself.
This might be partly because it’s part of people’s box to not think deeper about it. In a time of the decline of aesthetics through the internet and social media (I have written another blog about this problem: The Decline of Aesthetics) also the aesthetic appreciation of graphic art in particular and art, in general, is suffering. Especially as a lot of people have personal computers and laptops at home (loaded with at least one graphics program) and therefore feel destined to become their own graphic designers, no matter how gruesome the outcome …
The gates of aesthetic arbitrariness are standing wide open these days!
The second part of a possible answer is a bit more complicated. The secular world usually has a very lively arts scene where anything’s possible. The »religious world« however is a bit of a harder nut to crack. This is partially rooted in the mentioned aniconic tendencies throughout Jewish history as well as the challenges of what imagery is regarded as problematic or »allowed«.
Additionally, we often find an extreme interpretation of the laws of modesty. In ultra-orthodox circles, this, unfortunately, leads to nubs such as trying to completely eliminate the appearance of women from the public sphere. Till this day, women do not appear on photos published in Charedi magazines or newspapers or get removed from all printed photo materials. One of the most famous examples was Hilary Clinton when her image was removed from a photograph of Barack Obama and his staff monitoring the Bin Laden raid in 2011.
A Woman of Valor
As a religious woman, I completely disapprove of such fanaticism. Yes, without a doubt, there is little more sensual than a woman. And yes, we read in »Ayshet Chayil – A woman of valor« that »vain is beauty«, but that doesn’t mean we are supposed to make ourselves ugly, let alone disappear. Read the »Song of Songs«, study »The Kabbalah« — religion is erotic, at times even ecstatic. And so is art. Women are neither to be eliminated from the public nor from photos nor are they supposed to look unattractive. After all, we are supposed to be »A Light unto the Nations«. This certainly should also be reflected in our outer appearances. They are our face and door to the world.
Jews in the Diaspora got used to blending in. Sadly enough it happens all too often in order to not be noticed as Jews, in fear of Antisemitism. But be it as it may, in most cases, they take particular care of how they dress and appear in public. Israeli society, as a rule, is a lot more casual in this respect. That’s not a bad thing, but it leads to a greater form of sloppiness among a lot of Israelis, at times even negligence, when it comes to issues of etiquette and aesthetics. And I’ll be honest with you: As an artist and designer, who dedicates her life using art and aesthetics to help us become better human beings — it bothers me!
Art is sensual and erotic. And so is religion … But I mentioned that already …
Tefila – Prayer | Mixed Media on Paper © Hidur Design Works
A Life of Fight
I would describe myself as a Jewish artist. This definition is not so much determined by the fact that I am Jewish, but rather because my art is Jewish. Most of my artistic work deals – in one form or another – with Jewish identity, in particular with spiritual concepts.
As a Jew, I am connected to the centuries and millenniums of Jewish history, thinking, and philosophy. And still, I am an artist and designer in the 21st century. I am lead by »design thinking« and the concepts of abstract reductions. Shapes, color, textures, and working out their innate strengths and creative depths. The ongoing creation of metaphor. It is precisely this fusion, excitement, and tension between the past and the present, the old and the new that determines a lot of my work.
All of my design work for my Hidur Design product line was created for the sole purpose of enriching, enhancing and uplifting our lives through Judaism as a way of life. To bring a higher sense of beauty and aesthetics to the daily routine. To transform this routine from the ordinary to the sublime. Because it is my firm belief that art is another form of prayer which brings us closer to a deeper understanding of our own spiritual being.
But it’s a challenging road to travel. It means to break through people’s inner boxes. To break through people’s stereotyped graphical thinking and going beyond the idea that the »Jewishness« of a design can only be determined by Israeli flags, Magen Davids or images of the Western Wall, but rather by its spiritual artistic content and aesthetics. Wisdom and meaning begin where we transcend the obvious …
Not a simple task but worthwhile the effort.