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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dovid Campbell

The Carrot Revolution

What three painters taught me about the art of living playfully.

The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution. -Paul Cezanne God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. He has no real style; He just goes on trying other things. -Pablo Picasso

These quotations, by two of the modern era’s most influential artists, seem to offer us radically different visions of the natural world. Cezanne saw a universe bursting with meaning, where even the most mundane objects could have revolutionary implications. But Picasso saw randomness in nature, a series of artistic experiments with no unifying theme. These views seem worlds apart – but are they?

I think it’s fair to say that we all have moments when we identify more with Cezanne or with Picasso. Sometimes a passing moment seems inexplicably significant, even life-changing. Other times, we’re struck by life’s strangeness and lack of direction. What’s most surprising is how frequently we can flip between these two poles. We get a brief glimpse of some deeper truth, and then we’re thrown back into absurdity a moment later. What’s going on?

We can work our way towards an answer by visiting a third painter – one whose paintings make even Picasso seem traditional. Jackson Pollock was known for his highly abstract style. His paintings seem to document an experience launched onto the canvas rather than brushed, where color splatter, dripped lines, and layered patterns subordinate any intentional representation to the act of painting itself.

There was a method to this madness. Recounting a critique of his work, he once said, “Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was.”

We expect art to be striking, but we also want it to be clear, even tidy. We will allow a painting or a song to surprise us as long as it doesn’t leave us hanging. Imagine a symphony with no finale or a joke with no punchline. Unacceptable! But that’s precisely what Pollock’s paintings were. When I took courses in creative writing in college, the professors explained how important it was to set up a proper story arc. Characters and plot ought to be developed according to a certain pattern, not because that’s the only way to write a story, but because that’s the only way it will feel like a story. If your story isn’t neatly tied up with a bow, then you’re either asking the reader to accept an unfinished product or to finish it themselves. As it turns out, readers don’t enjoy either option, and neither did Pollock’s critics.

When things are left unfinished and unstructured, they can feel random to us. Picasso’s vision of a styleless Creator, an artist who “just goes on trying other things,” seems to reflect this feeling. But it can also be seen as something else. After all, to just go on trying other things is the very height of playful creativity.

Long before Picasso, ancient Jewish sages taught about the need to think of God as an artist. When exploring some of the most surprising features of the natural world, they remarked that “there is no artist like our God.” But they also recognized a certain playfulness in this work of art. The first-century philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, describes playfulness as a fundamental quality of the universe. Even God is described as “playing” through the act of creation – a joyful expression of His creative ability. Philo’s picture of the summum bonum is our participation in this cosmic game.

Similarly, the Talmudic sages paint a fascinating picture of God’s relationship with the Leviathan, a colossal sea creature whose progeny would have destroyed the world had it been allowed to reproduce. God, therefore, killed the female, preserving it as a feast for the righteous in the Messianic era, and He spends a quarter of every day playing with the male. The Leviathan seems to be a beast of apocalyptic proportions, threatening our physical reality while also heralding an age of redemption. And yet, it is exactly this creature that is described as God’s daily plaything, reflecting Oscar Wilde’s observation that “some things are too important to be taken seriously.” The Leviathan represents an insurmountable problem, a cosmic catastrophe, and its solution can only be found in a daily return to playfulness, the realm of infinite possibility. Within this realm, God can display both care for his creation and compassion for the monster who threatens it.

Conceptualizing Divine activity as a sort of playfulness seems to be widespread. From the Hindu idea of the Divine Lila to the thought of Christian mystic Jacob Boehme, various spiritual traditions consider playfulness to be a Divine quality. But why? Doesn’t playfulness imply a sort of aimlessness or silliness? Is this really a religious value?

The issue might be our modern understanding of play. We tend to think of games as diversions, things we can indulge in only when our work is finished. But distraction is just one aspect of what games offer us. “Not every game is blameworthy,” writes Philo, “for it is a sign of the innocence and sincerity of the pure festiveness of the heart.” Play is a way of giving expression to our purest feelings of joy. And, unlike our more utilitarian activities, true play is not for anything. We don’t paint just to see what a landscape looks like or dance just to reach a certain point on the floor. Play offers us an experience of self-justifying creativity, and perhaps this is why it is commonly used to represent the Divine.

Even the Torah, so often reduced to a legal text, is given a playful twist by these sages. Described as the blueprint for creation, it is referred to as a source of Godly delight, “playing always before Him.” In this context, it’s interesting to note that, like a good abstract painting, it seems to be without beginning or end. The eleventh-century Biblical commentator, Rashi, explains that The Book of Genesis begins with God already in the process of creation. Similarly, the Biblical narrative ends abruptly with Moses’ death. The people’s conquest and even their entrance into the Holy Land are deferred to the books of the Prophets.

And yet, the Biblical narrative doesn’t seem to be random. In fact, it’s perhaps the most influential story that’s ever been told, and this is where Cezanne’s carrot revolution meets Picasso’s styleless artist. Cezanne wanted us to find life-changing significance in something as plain as a carrot. He wanted us to see it as something grander, stretching out beyond itself to a place where it could encounter and transform us. But that sort of experience is impossible without an artist’s lens. We must be willing to see a world that awaits our interpretation, to enter into a conversation with something that is forever unfinished or styleless.

Not despite, but because the story lacks a beginning and an end, it invites us into its play. It asks us to supply context and participate in its interpretation. Like a good Pollock painting, “it confronts you,” but with the openness and sincerity of true art. This is the carrot revolution – its paradoxical desire to present us with life’s heaviest philosophical and moral challenges and then insist that we do the lifting. But how? Where do we acquire the necessary artistic vision?

Life offers us abundant opportunities for practice. One of the most rewarding experiences of fatherhood has been watching my young children learn how to play. Their games are exquisite nonsense. Always unpredictable, always open-ended, Picasso would undoubtedly describe them as having “no real style.”

But their games are also revolutionary. In their creative trance, every object bursts with meaning and offers them a new way of seeing the world. Playing with them has been a privilege, but it’s also been a reminder that we’re all capable of Cezanne’s carrot revolution, especially if we’re willing to go on trying other things.

This article originally appeared on Beyond Belief.


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