How far should an artist be willing to go for his art?
That is the question at the heart of the novel My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Just yesterday I saw a stage version of this semi-autobiographical story done by the excellent Chicago-based Timeline Theatre Company.
The play disturbed me, not only for its display of raw emotion, but because it spoke directly to me about my work as a writer.
Asher Lev is a young Hasidic Jew growing up in Brooklyn, New York. His pious parents love him but don’t know what to make of his obsession with drawing and painting. As Asher Lev grows up and starts to learn what it means to be a true artist, his depictions come into direct conflict with his parents’ feelings and his religious upbringing.
As I write my memoirs, I struggle with the need to be honest and true yet at the same time not hurt the people I love. The tension is between my need to love and be loved and the need to be heard and really seen. Is art that compromises really art at all?
I also feel tension between my Catholic religious tradition and my passionate beliefs about freedom and women’s rights. Sometimes I consider myself a coward and a hypocrite if I don’t come out strongly against Catholic Church teaching in these areas. In Asher Lev, the artist paints nudes and crucifixions, two things his Hasidic parents find morally reprehensible. Yet he is driven by a need to express himself through these images.
At one point Asher tells his father, “I respect you, Papa. But I can’t respect your aesthetic blindness.”
His father replies, “What about moral blindness, Asher?”
Therein lies the dilemma for the artist – how to stay true to one’s vision without doing harm. It is a question that I will continue to ask myself as I pursue my writing career.