Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ethics and Visual Art: Hanan Harchol at the Gotthelf Art Gallery

Hanan Harchol is an animator, but much more than that. He animates and illuminates his stylized expressionist drawings with Jewish dialectic:  Harchol's stories are composed of conversations between parents and children that harken back to Torah and its commentators; these are the conversations that have lasted for thousands of years.

At the same time, one might think of other duos of dialectic - from the comedic (Abbot & Costello, Burns & Allen, Penn & Teller) to the serious (Socrates and his students or fellow Athenians, Chuang Tzu & Huizi, or the paired learning of chavrusa). 

Learning can follow the professor at the podium and the student in the class model, or the more intimate and relational approach of the mentor, apprentice or peer. There is also the 'family' (or kinship) in its various manifestations: the nuclear family, the extended family, the lineage and the clan. However our society constructs the 'family' (whether in hunting and gathering society, tribal society, industrial society), we consider the 'family' is among the psychic forces that helps glue society together. We also think of social breakdown and anomie as linked to the disintegration of the 'family.' 

In this sense, Harchol's family dialogues have a universal appeal even with the societal nuances identified above. These dialogues are not just Jewish family dialogues although accents and looks and key phrases provide a specific cultural context. 

Together with the strong expressionist style, his dialogues take on the perspective of a "psychological narrative painter." 

Hanan Harchol / Landlord / Forgiveness

Jewish Food for Thought:  The Animated Series by Hanan Harchol

Gotthelf Art Gallery
San Diego Center for Jewish Culture
Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center
Jacobs Family Campus
4126 Executive Drive
La Jolla, California 92037
Tel. 858.457.3030

December 10, 2014 - February 25, 2015
Hours:  9 am to 5 pm (daily except for Saturdays & holidays)

Jewish Food For Thought is a collection of animated shorts that
teach Jewish ethics to adults and teens using thought provoking
and funny conversations between animated versions of Hanan and his Israeli parents. Each episode focuses on a particular theme such as forgiveness, love, or gratitude, distilling major Jewish teachings on that theme into engaging conversation. The series offers a fresh approach to accessing and applying thousands of  years of Jewish wisdom to contemporary life.

The animated dialogues come with study guides written by Rabbi Leora Kaye. These guides help focus the discussion, whether for the classroom or informal discussion groups.

For example, in the midst of the animated dialogue on Forgiveness, Harchol poses the following scenario:

DADDY: "Actions lead to feelings."

Hanan’s father goes on to say:

DADDY: "Stopping an action is not the same as taking an action. To free yourself from the resentment, you need to take action."

5. What does “actions lead to feelings” mean? Can a feeling “grow” as a result of an action? Do you agree that there is a difference between stopping an action and taking one? Can you think of times in your life when stopping an action actually was an active choice? Is there something in-between? Do actions lead to feelings or is it the other way around? Which should be the driving force?

This action/feelings issue was noticed by "the psychologist/philosopher William James [who] was one of the first theorists to notice this counter-intuitive process. He believed that emotions arise out of the bodily actions we take in response to what is happening in our lives. It is not, he theorized, that, 'we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival and angry and strike.' In fact, he argued, 'this order of sequence is incorrect...the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble.'"

"James argued that without some kind of bodily response (crying, trembling, striking) we would not feel emotion. 'We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we should not actually feel afraid or angry.' While over simplifying somewhat, he was still onto an essential truth. Behavior can create emotion.'" (Emphasis added.) From an article by Noam Shpancer, Insight Therapy

To be sure, this action-first-which-then-leads-to-understanding approach appears in Exodus 24:7 (na'aseh v'nishma). Whether one follows Torah or American philosophy, this and other theoretical underpinnings in Harchol's animations and study guides are fruitful to those who wish to investigate, explore and reflect further on this ethical subject matter.

Hanan Harchol / Landlord / Forgiveness 

Joe Nalven:  How do you see the process of learning from others – especially as a dialog?

Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski:  My first association was Calvin and Hobbes.  [The Jewish tradition features] the Seder:  Reciting the account of the Exodus requires that the children (or wife) ask the four questions, because the impact is greater in the form of a dialog than by straight narration.

Hanan Harchol / Landlord / Forgiveness
Engaging with Harchol's animations and Rabbi Kaye's study guides is a multi-layered experience. And, the surprise is that if you go down this path, you may find that the adventure does not end at the end of the animation. 

The case of envy and looking into other people's windows is a dialogue that stops short of where I would like the dialogue to go. Imagine the difference between a social worker who monitors the case of a single individual or family helping the person or family to make a positive adjustment (help to get a new refrigerator, to get Section 8 housing and the like) AND the social worker as community organizer who goes out into the community and preaches social action. Schools of Social Work allow for these different tracks:  psycho-social care versus socio-political action.  In the Envy animation, we are treated to the former - a turning inward for dealing with the consequences of envy: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's car or girlfriend is not merely a proscription for social harmony, but a way to soothe the beast of temptation.

Then there is the question of envy as redistribution of wealth in order to exact a sense of fairness - but is such 'fairness' - as a socialized form of envy - any different that coveting thy neighbor's goods?  This scenario about envy requires a Part 2 to the dialogue - actions that go well beyond looking into someone else's window.

Hanan Harchol / Jewish Food for Thought
Finding time away from being a high school teacher as well as a classical guitarist, Harchol benefitted from the support of the The Covenant Foundation. Hopefully, we will enjoy many more Harchols from thoughtful benefactors, bringing together art and cultural values. 

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