That's What Art Is, Papa

Framed art pieces in a gallery with people

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“'That’s what art is, Papa': Philosophical Aesthetics in My Name is Asher Lev"

David W. McNutt, Ph.D. (Core Studies)

What is art?

Approaching a perennial philosophical question like that can be daunting. The number of answers offered seems endless, but the likelihood of finding a satisfying one seems extremely doubtful.

Thankfully, Wheaton College’s Core Book for the 2021-2022 academic year, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, can help readers explore this question through its narrative about a Jewish boy who discovers that he possesses an artistic gift and a calling that places him in tension with his family and community. Throughout the story, Asher and other characters reveal their own answers to the question, “What is art?” Not through philosophical treatises, but through their actions and words. They don’t offer an exhaustive list, but these characters do helpfully embody different philosophical perspectives on the definition of art.

For Asher’s mother, Rivkeh Lev, art should elicit pleasure in the viewer. When Asher begins to demonstrate his artistic interest and ability, she initially encourages him. But after he draws an unflattering picture of her – she is a common subject of his work – she asks why he didn’t draw pretty pictures of birds and flowers instead. His artistic purpose, as she sees it, is to reflect and add to the beauty of the world by making pleasing images. Even at a young age, Asher finds this view unacceptable. After he draws a picture of his father talking angrily on the telephone, his mother asks about the work:

“Was it a pretty drawing, Asher?”

“No, Mama. But it was a good drawing.”…

“You should make the world pretty, Asher,” my mother whispered, leaning toward me…

“I don’t like the world, Mama. It’s not pretty. I won’t draw it pretty.” (28)

Several philosophers have suggested that art is that which pleases or is seen as beautiful. For example, in his famous 1757 essay, “Of the Standard of Taste,” Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) contended that art is primarily intended to please: “The object of eloquence is to persuade, of history to instruct, of poetry to please by means of the passions and the imagination.”[1] Of course, this raises the question of how we might agree upon what qualifies as art in light of our different, subjective responses to what we consider beautiful or pleasing. Although Hume acknowledged that personal tastes vary, he still argued for a universal standard for what counts as beautiful or pleasing – a standard that he thought should be informed by both expertise and freeing oneself from prejudice.

Understandably, some have pointed to the limitations of depending too much upon our subjective responses or appealing to pleasure. Anglican theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie notes that an appeal to beauty can easily lead to an affirmation of sentimentality, which he argues often trivializes evil, is self-indulgent, and avoids costly action.[2] For Asher, who believes that his drawings are “good,” even if they aren’t “pretty,” the notion that art is meant to please is an oversimplification.

If Asher’s mother believes that art should please, then Asher’s father, Aryeh Lev, views art as both foolishness and a pernicious evil that can too easily mislead his son. From the first signs of Asher’s artistic gift, Aryeh expresses disapproval: “You have nothing better to do with your time, Asher? Your grandfather would not have liked you to waste so much time with foolishness.” (12) Aryeh cannot deny his son’s talent, but he is uncertain if his gift comes from the Ribbono Shel Olom (“Master of the Universe”) or from “the Other Side.” (109) The tension between father and son only builds:

“I wish you would stop drawing. We were done with that foolishness.”…

“Foolishness is something that’s stupid,” I said. “Foolishness is something a person shouldn’t do. Foolishness is something that brings harm to the world. Foolishness is a waste of time. Please don’t ever call it foolishness any more, Papa.” (129) 

Yet Aryeh expresses a worry about art that has reverberated throughout philosophical and theological history. When reflecting upon the ideal city state in The Republic, Plato (c. 427-347 BCE) argued that the arts should not be used in the education of the young because they are implicitly deceitful and they tend to corrupt people by appealing to our emotions rather than our rational thinking. Following his Theory of Forms, Plato maintained that an artistic work is a copy of a copy – the imitation of a form, which is already an imitation of the true Form: “The imitator knows nothing of importance about the things which he imitates, and… imitation is a kind of play and not a serious business.”[3] Art is, thus, “twice removed” from the truth.[4] For Plato, unless the arts can prove to be beneficial in the life of the city rather than corruptive, then no artists or poets (in the sense of poesis, or making) ought to be part of the ideal city.[5]

Echoes of Plato’s concerns can be heard in the views of John Calvin (1509-1564), the 16th-century French Protestant reformer. Calvin expressed apprehensions about visual art, especially within the context of worship, in light of his reading of the second commandment and what he viewed as art’s potential to lead to idolatry: “We believe it wrong that God should be represented by a visible appearance, because he himself has forbidden it [Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8] and it cannot be done without some defacing of his glory.”[6] Of course, other Christian traditions – and indeed other Christians within the Reformed tradition – have had a different response to art, but Aryeh’s (and Calvin’s) concerns remain. If you doubt humanity’s propensity for distorting the good gifts of God, then you might consider re-reading Exodus 32. 

As he struggles to discern whether and how to use his artistic abilities, Asher encounters some glimpses of support within both his family and the community. For example, his Uncle Yitzchok buys one of his early drawings, and Yudel Krinsky calls Asher’s artistic skill “a great gift” (104). But perhaps the most surprising form of (initial) support comes from the Rebbe, who sends Asher to study with Jacob Kahn, a Jewish artist, and doesn’t rule out the idea that his gift could be a calling from God:  

"I do not know what the Master of the Universe has waiting for us. Certain things are given, and it is for man to use them to bring goodness into the world. The Master of the Universe gives us glimpses, only glimpses. It is for us to open our eyes wide.” (284-285)

While concerns about the dangers of idolatry have understandably persisted throughout Christian history, other Christians have viewed the arts as a blessing to God’s people and a legitimate, God-given vocation. Consider the gifts given by the Holy Spirit to Bezalel and Oholiab in Exodus 31; the role of icons in the worship of the Orthodox Church; works by Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rubens, and El Greco commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church; Martin Luther’s partnership with Lucas Cranach the Elder; or Abraham Kuyper’s affirmation of art as one of the spheres of life in which Christians should be engaged.

Perhaps as surprising as the Rebbe’s support of Asher is the fact that several philosophers and theologians from the Reformed tradition – the same tradition as Calvin – have argued that making art can be a calling from God. For example, Calvin Seerveld states that “art is work, hard, bodily work that can legitimately be a man or woman’s vocation.”[7] Similarly, in light of Genesis 1:26-28, Nicholas Wolterstorff affirms the artistic calling: “It is not difficult to see how man’s vocation of master, of subduer, of humanizer of the world, of one who imposes order for the sake of benefitting mankind or honoring God, applies to the artist.”[8]

Like all Christians, artists are called to glorify the triune God and to testify to Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. But how does that general calling relate to the particular calling of the Christian artist? That is, how is it manifested in paint, clay, stone, sound, words, film, or any other medium? Christian artist Makoto Fujimura offers one answer. Reflecting upon his own artistic work, he suggests that “artists can open new doors of theological illumination in sharing what Christians call the Good News of the gospel to a world that has only a dim idea, if any, of what is so good about it.”[9] No doubt, Asher would describe his vocation differently, but in the cases of both of these artists, their work might be affirmed as both a gift and a calling.

When the Rebbe directs Asher to meet with Jacob Kahn, Asher discovers another view of art: it requires absolute freedom for the artist from any other responsibilities, including those to the community. For Asher, who grew up in the Hasidic Jewish community and whose parents are committed to supporting Ladover Jews, this notion is initially unthinkable. Although the revelation of his artistic gift places him at odds with the expectations of both his family and the community, Asher is committed to his faith:

“All Jews are responsible one for the other,” I said, quoting the statement from the Talmud my father had years ago quoted to me.

“As an artist you are responsible to Jews?” He seemed angry. “Listen to me, Asher Lev. As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it. Do you understand? An artist is responsible to his art. Anything else is propaganda.” (218)

Kahn’s instructions for Asher to visit the Museum of Modern Art to study Picasso’s Guernica and to read the New Testament narrative of the massacre of the innocents from Matthew’s gospel – the “Bible of the goyim” (199) – further indicate the freedom that Kahn believes art demands and the distance that he has established between himself and the Jewish community.

Monroe C. Beardsley (1915-1985), an American philosopher, is best known for being part of the “New Criticism” movement and arguing (along with W. K. Wimsatt) for what is known as “the intentional fallacy.” They contended that a work of art itself provides all that is necessary to interpret it and that anything beyond the work – including the life or intentions of the artist – is irrelevant in our understanding: “The design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.”[10] In this case, Beardsley would argue, Potok’s artistic goals are irrelevant to our reading of the text, as are Asher’s intentions regarding his art. But Beardsley is also among those philosophers of art who believe that freedom is paramount to the work of the artist: “What the creative artist needs above all from his society is freedom.”[11] In the novel, Potok quotes Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, which expresses a similar sentiment: “… every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race.” (203)

Such a position affirms the vocation of the artist, but it also effectively removes the artist from any responsibility to the broader community – a view that Kahn’s character embodies. The greatest tension in the novel is that between Asher’s calling to be an artist and his place within his family and the Hasidic community. Does he bear responsibility for other Jews, including his parents? Or is his only responsible to his art?

During his visits to Kahn’s studio, Asher meets Anna Schaeffer, an art gallery owner. In the novel, she represents the entire institution of art – its galleries, curators, shows, annual passes, critics, publications, and auctions. Initially, she is hesitant about bringing Asher into the art world:

“Asher Lev, this world will destroy you. Art is not for people who want to make the world holy. You will be like a nun in a bro– in a – theater for burlesque. Do you understand me, Asher Lev? If you want to make the world holy, stay in Brooklyn.” (209-210)

But she is ultimately convinced by his talent – that, and the potential for making money: “One day, you will have your own show here, Asher Lev. Then you will be famous and we will be rich.” (245-246)

One of the developments in modern aesthetics is the notion that art is best defined and understood within the context of the institution of art. Two philosophers particularly associated with this view are Arthur Danto (1924-2013) and George Dickie (1926-2020). Danto spent much of his career reflecting upon how one object may be considered a work of art (for example, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, a favorite subject of his) while another, identical object is not considered art: “To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry – an atmosphere of artistic theory, in knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.”[12] Meanwhile, in his version of the institutional theory, Dickie argued that anything may be considered a work of art as long as it has been deemed to be a “candidate for appreciation” by some member of the artworld – who he defined as anyone who considers themselves to be a member of the artworld.[13]

Whether such a view is too elitist (i.e., only members of the artworld can determine what art is) or too democratic (i.e., anyone can declare themselves to be a member of the artworld), some have pushed back on the institutional view. For example, Wolterstorff is sharply critical of the institutional view of art, especially its notion that art is primarily meant for “disinterested contemplation” (a notion affirmed by the likes of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury[14] and Immanuel Kant[15]), which is not an “uninterested” view, but rather an objective aesthetic judgment free from desire or need. Wolterstorff writes: “Now if one looks at our society’s works of high art one is at once struck by the fact that they are almost exclusively intended, by producer or distributor, for contemplation.”[16] Instead, he argues that art is above all an action, and he points to the myriad ways in which art has been and is used in human life (e.g., memorial art). Whatever our responses to the institutional view, it is evident that social institutions and practices are a significant part of our – and Asher’s – experience with art.

What was the artist feeling or thinking when she painted that painting? What emotions does the artist elicit in others through his work of art?

Asher’s own views on art develop over the course of Potok’s novel, but a consistent feature is his belief that art expresses the artist’s emotions and feelings. At one point, Asher attempts to explain his views about art to his father: “I paint my feelings. I paint how I see and feel about the world. I express my feelings in shapes and colors and lines. But I paint a painting, not a story.” (295) Later, he states his philosophy of art rather bluntly: “That’s what art is, Papa. It’s a person’s private vision expressed in aesthetic forms.” (303)

The expressionist theory of art has been very popular in philosophical aesthetics, but it takes different forms. For example, British philosopher R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) preferred to focus primarily on the emotions expressed by the artist: “The expression of emotion, simply as expression, is not addressed to any particular audience. It is addressed primarily to the speaker himself, and secondarily to anyone who can understand.”[17] By comparison, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) reflected upon how the expression of those feelings by the artist might elicit similar emotions in readers or viewers: “The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.”[18]

In the novel, Jacob Kahn articulates a similar view about art. When discussing Asher’s possible future as an artist with Anna Schaeffer, he says, “Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way.” (212) For Asher, as for many artists and aestheticians, art expresses all of the feelings – the screams, the fears, the joys – of the artist.

Yet those emotions and feelings must take form and shape.

Through Potok’s narrative, readers witness the development of an artist. Part of Asher’s artistic growth is his mastery of certain forms. Controversially for Asher and his family, this includes his drawing of nude figures, which he initially learns by copying paintings in the museum. Later, in Jacob Kahn’s studio and against the Rebbe’s wishes, he draws a nude female model. Asher’s father cannot understand his decision to display nude works at his first show:

“Why do you have to paint and display nudes?”

“Because I’m part of a tradition, Papa. Mastery of the art form of the nude is very important to that tradition.” (304)

In his 1917 work Art, English art critic Clive Bell (1881-1964) articulated a formalist theory of art. He asked, what is it that is common to works of art that elicit emotions in us? His response: “Only one answer seems possible – significant form. In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions.”[19] According to Bell, only “significant form” could account for such responses.

Even more controversially for Asher, his parents, and their Jewish community, the forms that he must learn also include the crucifixion. His mother cannot reconcile the family’s faith with Asher’s attention to the figure of Christ: “Then she said, ‘Where your painting has brought me, Asher. To Jesus.’ She shook her head.” (170) But Jacob Kahn insists that this, too, must be part of his training as an artist: “I am telling you that you must understand what a crucifixion is in art if you want to be a great artist.” (228) Eventually, Asher’s attention to the form of the crucified Christ leads to his decision to paint the Brooklyn Crucifixion: “I created this painting – an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.” (330)

For Asher, the crucifixion became a “significant form.” Ironically, although Asher’s attention to the form of Christ causes him much suffering, he seems to miss the theological significance of Jesus’ own suffering and death.

At one point, Jacob Kahn warns Asher about becoming an artist:

“Do you understand me, Asher Lev? This is not a toy. This is not a child scrawling on a wall. This is a tradition; it is a religion, Asher Lev. You are entering a religion called painting.” (213)

Art has held a longstanding place within religious practices. Indeed, even Plato made one exception for his denial of art in the ideal city when he approved of “hymns to the gods and panegyrics on the good.”[20] But has art become a religion unto itself? Tom Wolfe (1930-2018), an American novelist and journalist, is among those who have suggested as much. According to Wolfe, works of art have taken on religious significance and curators and critics have become modern-day clergy: “There was a time when well-to-do, educated people in America adorned their parlors with crosses, crucifixes, or Stars of David. These were marks not only of faith but of cultivation… Today the conventional symbol of devoutness is – but of course! – the Holy Rectangle: the painting.”[21]

Later, Kahn confesses to Asher that he no longer prays to God:

“I have lost that faculty. I cannot pray. I talk to God through my sculpture and painting.”

“That’s also prayer.”

He smiled faintly, the morning sun on his face. “The Rebbe said precisely that. You are following the party line, Asher Lev. But we know it is not the same thing, don’t we?” (252) 

In the end, art becomes another kind of religion for Asher, but it does not completely replace his Jewish faith; rather, it stands alongside it – even if hesitantly, uneasily. Because of the pain he has caused, Asher is asked to leave the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, but the Rebbe instructs him to go to the yeshiva in Paris. Asher, it seems, is able to do what neither his parents nor Kahn nor anyone else in his community can: affirm both his calling as an artist and his faith. He is now two things: “Asher Lev, Hasid. Asher Lev, painter.” (367)


What is art?

Hopefully, your reading of My Name is Asher Lev and your reflections upon the various views embodied in the novel can shed some light on this question. Perhaps you’ll add your own answer to the list above and further the conversation.


For Further Reading

Cameron J. Anderson, The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).

William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001).

Cynthia Freeland, But Is It Art? An Introduction to Art Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Makoto Fujimura, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021).

Darren Hudson Hick, Introducing Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, 2nd ed. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).

Bence Nanay, Aesthetics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for the Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task (Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1980).

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).



[1] David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” in Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin, eds., Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 109.

[2] Jeremy S. Begbie, “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts,” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, eds. Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 47.

[3] Plato, The Republic, ed. Andrea Tschemplik, trans. John Llewelyn Davies and David James Vaughn (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), Book X, 602b.

[4] Plato, The Republic, Book X, 597e.

[5] Plato, The Republic, Book X, 607a. The fact that Asher sometimes doesn’t know what he is doing when he is drawing – for example, his drawing of Stalin (100) and his drawing of the Rebbe’s face in the Chumash (123)– points to another aspect of a Platonic theory of art according to which artists make only by being “inspired” or “possessed” by the divine (see Ion, 534a).

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 112, 1.11.12. In the same section, Calvin notes that arts such as painting and sculpture are “gifts of God.”

[7] Calvin Seerveld, “The Biblical Charter for Artistic Activity in a Christian Community,” in Rainbows for the Fallen World (Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1980), 27.

[8] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 77.

[9] Makoto Fujimura, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020), 4.

[10] W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” in Aesthetics, 547.

[11] Monroe Beardsley, “The Inherent Values of Art,” in Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (New York: Harcourt, 1958), 582.

[12] Arthur Danto, “The Artworld,” in Aesthetics, 422.

[13] George Dickie, “What is Art? An Institutional Analysis,” in Aesthetics, 431.

[14] Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, in Aesthetics, 86.

[15] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, in Aesthetics, 132.

[16] Wolterstorff, Art in Action, 24.

[17] R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art in Aesthetics, 284.

[18] Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? in Aesthetics, 236.

[19] Clive Bell, Art in Aesthetics, 262.

[20] Plato, The Republic, Book X, 607a.

[21] Tom Wolfe, “The Worship of Art: Notes on the New God,” in Philosophy of the Visual Arts, ed. Philip Alperson (Oxford: OUP, 1992), 359.

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