Wheat Field by Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn

Wheat Field, 1958, Screenprint with hand-colouring, 686 x 1016 mm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Rosenwald Collection, 1959.10.51, © 2021 Estate of Ben Shahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Seeing the Wood for the Trees

Commentary by

A striking feature of Ben Shahn’s print, Wheat Field, is the crowded use of line. Straighter and more orderly at the bottom, the stalks of wheat become criss-crossed and entangled at the top, difficult to follow and distinguish. Colours emerge where the lines overlap. Tracing the lines with your eye in the areas around these splashes of colour gives a sense of dynamism, as if the colours are light refracted through wheat that is moving in the breeze.

In the dispute between the Pharisees and Jesus’s disciples which is described in this incident in the gospel narratives, entanglement and dynamism are at issue.

Nowadays, seeing a group of friends ambling through a cornfield one weekend, picking off the odd ear of grain, one would easily define their activity as a form of leisure, unproductive but no doubt pleasant. Yet the gospel controversy is precisely the reverse: it is centred on whether such activity constituted ‘work’, in breach of first-century religious laws on Sabbath observance.

The disciples’ actions were not prohibited by biblical law. But the Pharisees, worried they might ‘accidentally or unknowingly transgress the will of God’, supplemented this written law with many additional regulations based in oral tradition (Hooker 2001: 103). Jesus’s followers are accused of breaching these extra rules.

Jesus sought a flexibility in the application of the Jewish Law (Torah) that the gospel writers contrast with the rigidity of the Pharisees. He appeals to deeper principles to guide its use: the Law exists to enrich human life rather than diminish it—‘the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath’ (Mark 2:27 NRSV)—and human need takes priority over ritual observance—‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’ (Matthew 12:7; Hosea 6:6).

It should not be assumed that Jesus’s attitude here is wholly revolutionary: there is Midrashic evidence that some other Jewish rabbis may have agreed with his position (Hooker 2001: 104). But with these remarks, Jesus implies that the Pharisees, so zealous to keep the law in minute details, had overlooked its underlying rationale.

The glimpses of colour seen through the wheat of Shahn’s Wheatfield might, therefore, be compared to how his interpretations seek to return to view, through a thicket of regulations, the essential purpose of the Torah: to bring life.

 

References

Hooker, Morna. 2001. The Gospel According to St Mark (London: Continuum)


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