I teach a Sunday School elective art class for middle schoolers. It’s tough to be in middle school. They’re definitely not grown ups, but leaving childhood behind. They want to make their own decisions, choose their own friends and foods, go to bed when they want to. They want people to listen to them. They’re moody and self conscious, but just want to be normal. They’re afraid of what’s happening in the world, and dearly want to fix it.
I was fortunate to attend Gary Hirsch’s awesome post-WDS workshop last July, and at the end he invited us to take a piece of his artwork off the wall, keep it, and make something, anything, inspired by it. I somehow gravitated towards this piece of art. I wasn’t sure why it appealed to me until I got it home and thought about it for a while. I looked at the image of this pink devil guy tossing someone around. I thought about my middle school students, and how they feel tossed around by their parents, peers, school and society. How they are not always sure what is right and what isn’t, and how sometimes they do the wrong thing even though they know it’s wrong.
This thought process led me to the Jewish concept of Yetzer Hara and Yetzer Tov, loosely translated as Evil Inclination and Good Inclination. Our tradition tells us that humans have both inclinations within us at all times, and the free will to choose either. I asked my middle schoolers why they think God made us this way. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone was good all the time?
A very lively discussion ensued. “If everyone had only good thoughts then we would all be the same.” “If we can only be good, this takes away our choice.” “All humans are balanced, both good and bad, there is no such thing as a person who is all one or the other.” “Depends on what you think is good and what you think is bad. What might be good for one person might be bad for another. It depends on your perspective, what you believe.” “If there is no bad, then we can’t repair the world.” “Our Yetzer Hara helps us learn control.” “Through doing the wrong thing, we learn to do the right thing.”
We discussed ways to visually represent our ideas while the teens sketched. They went through the creative process of dumping out all their thoughts – sketching all their ideas, the good and the bad. I told them not to judge their thoughts, that sometimes a “bad” idea turns out to be a great one. Get them all out of your head, I told them. And as I predicted, after all the cliche ideas were out, the great ideas started forming. The kids went deeper into their philosophies, and found original ways to combine concepts and interpretations.
We also discussed how art is a form of self expression, not a pretty picture over your couch. We create art to tell our story – in this case our own interpretation of Yetzer Hara and Yetzer Tov. Each student chose one sketch to turn into a painting. Some were good painters, many were not. This lack of innate artistic ability did not bother them. They were thrilled to have the opportunity to use an artistic medium in a self expressive way. I don’t think that any of my students have had an assignment like this in school, even in art class.
This project had young teens delving into a concept, really thinking hard about why we are the way we are. They talked about things they did in their own lives that they considered to be the work of their Yetzer Hara, and how that helped them come to realizations about how they can do better. To represent their thoughts, they created a painting that had meaning to them. Through this they realized that art is a wonderful means of self expression. That is what art should do.