Amy Sillman and the Shulchan Aruch

Jewish thought bubbles

I had the pleasure of viewing Amy Sillman: one lump or two, the current exhibit at ICA; THE INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART/BOSTON.

I was particularly intrigued by her Seating Charts.

Amy Sillman seating combo 1

Amy Sillman Seating Charts 2006 and 2011

Sebastian Smee writes in a review in The Boston Globe:

In the process of introducing us to her talents in gouache, watercolor, oil paint, and iPhone app, the show’s first two rooms contain several examples of an ongoing series called “Seating Charts.” Mordant excoriations of social life in New York’s art world, these text-heavy diagrams spell out the kinds of silent assessment we all instinctively make in the social arena.

One person is identified, for instance, as “Frustrated artist who still has her beautiful looks but who also has financial problems that keep her up at night. She can’t reconcile her beauty with her difficult row to hoe.” Another is summed up more bluntly: “Guy who’s really a fraud and just there to suck up to the curator at the next table (keeps looking over . . . ).”

Another “Seating Chart,” this one describing guests at a benefit dinner, is pithier still: “Strange rich woman with snazzy wardrobe and frizzy hair.” “Money guy — can’t wait to leave – keeps checking time — can’t remember if he fed the dog.” And “Plus one — only here by accident.”

The humor is sharp. But it goes beyond humor into a kind of pathos that runs all through Sillman’s work: the pathos of being unable to transpose our own thought bubbles into social life; the fraudulent feeling of having to operate continuously in two registers.

The reviewer hits the mark as to how these works relate to Sillman’s oeuvre, humor and artistic contribution.  But since Art is about what the viewer brings to the table (forgive the pun) I can be excused for viewing these works through a more Talmudic lens…

Amy Sillman seating combo 2

Amy Sillman, Seating Plan 2009

Amy Sillman Seating Chart, 2009       Babylonian Talmud, Vilna Edition

Or if you draw and study Talmud outside of the lines……

Amy Sillman, Untitled (seating chart), 2009   GStern Talmud glosses 1970's

Amy Sillman, Untitled (seating chart), 2009       G Stern gloss on Talmud 1970’s

I am not the first to compare Jewish Law to dinnerware, in fact the preeminent code of Jewish law was called The Shulchan Aruch (Hebrew: שׁוּלחָן עָרוּך‎, literally: “Set Table”) authored in Safed by Sefardic scholar Yosef Karo in 1563.   Ashkenazi Jews follow rulings of Moses Isserles whose glosses to the Shulchan Aruch are widely referred to as the mappah (literally: the “tablecloth”).  Commentaries on the work include Peri Chadash (“New Fruit”) and Megadim (“Dainty Fruit”) culminating in the early 20th century work  Aruch HaShulchan (Hebrew: ערוך השולחן) (“the table is set”)  which attempts to remaster the original recipes of the overly processed rulings of the Shulchan Arukh and identify their sources.

With all the wonderful mixed metaphors of tables, fancy cloths and sweet fruits, there’s a bitter irony here.

Remember: Jewish Law was to be a vibrant and dynamic oral law.  It should come as no surprise that Karo himself had no very high opinion of his work, remarking that he had written it chiefly for “young students” (Shulchan Aruch, Introduction).  Karo wrote the Shulchan Aruch for the benefit of those who did not possess the education necessary to understand the earlier works that included multiple rulings, opinions and ambiguity.  We should be thankful that Karo had not lived to see the Sparknotes version of his work; The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Hebrew: קיצור שולחן ערוך, “The Abbreviated Shulchan Aruch“.

Today, like every day for the next 6 1/2 years, literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud, along with Jews around the world and trying to make some sense of it weekly in Tablet : Close Encounters With Talmud.  It’a a heroic task, but as anyone who has tried to swim in the sea of Talmud will admit, our oral law, committed to writing, like Amy Sillman’s Seating Charts, are tortured endeavors full of the pathos of being unable to transpose our own cultural and religious thought bubbles into social life…

So why bother?  Why does Amy still go to these meetings, dinners and receptions?  Why do we still study these texts? I guess it’s like the Woody Allen joke “you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.”

If Amy doesn’t lunch with these choice specimens of social life in New York’s art world… What’s she going to draw about?  If we don’t (hopefully) discuss the competing and contradictory texts and ideas of our religious and cultural heritage over the shabbat and holiday table ….  What will become of us?

Be honest… What are the alternatives? Schlepping our thought bubbles around with us on a ball and chain like a prisoner in solitary?

Amy Sillman Me & Ugly Montain 2003

Amy Sillman Me & Ugly Montain 2003

note: Want to read madlik on  parshat lech lecha? please click here:  walking without pretext.

1 Comment

Filed under Amy Sillman, art, Judaism, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, social commentary, Torah, Uncategorized

One response to “Amy Sillman and the Shulchan Aruch

  1. orna

    Torah and Art-Nice combination.

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