The Challenge of Defining Jewish Art


By Menachem Wecker

Published August 18, 2006, issue of August 18, 2006.
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American Artists, Jewish Images By Matthew Baigell

Syracuse University Press, 288 pages, $45.

In 1966, art critic Harold Rosenberg gave a talk at The Jewish Museum in New York. “First, they build a Jewish museum; then they ask, ‘Is there a Jewish art?’ Jews!” he quipped. But Rosenberg went on to give his own response to the question. “The gentile answer is, ‘Yes, there is a Jewish art, and no, there is no Jewish art,’” he said. “The Jewish answer is, ‘What do you mean by Jewish art?’” Indeed, what do we mean? Does any art created by a Jewish person qualify? Or must there be something substantive about the art? And if it’s a quality to be found in the art itself, how to define it? The subject is made all the more complicated by institutions, which tend to offer definitions — but not exactly ones we might like. Museums and galleries shun Jewish art because “religion” does not sell, while Jewish community centers generally favor kitsch over art because donors prefer art that celebrates Judaism to art that grapples with provocative questions. Against this perilous backdrop, Matthew Baigell, professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University, has published several books about Jewish art. In his most recent, “American Artists, Jewish Images,” he courageously defends his subject, though it is ultimately a defense that the art could have done without. “American Artists, Jewish Images” tracks 15 Jewish artists from the 20th century whose “knowledge of the religion, its culture, and its traditions must have entered into their art-making process,” though explanation and analyses of the material rarely found their way into printed material or classroom lectures. For this, Baigell blames a lack of scholars knowledgeable about biblical and talmudic sources and Hebrew and Yiddish. “American Artists” responds to this scholarly void by attending to the “breadth and depth” of Jewish subject matter in American art, “as well as its changes and evolution over the decades.” Throughout the discussion, Baigell responds to the question of what is Jewish about Jewish art “in a one-word answer… nothing.” The book title actually should have been “American Images, Jewish Artists”; the artists explored are largely American artists painting about Judaism rather than painting Jewishly. The issue here, it seems to me, is Baigell’s inability or resistance to read images as images. Let’s take, as an example, the artist Hyman Bloom, who painted a series of gruesome corpses (one example appears here) in the 1940s. Baigell claims that “Bloom, like Max Weber, did not paint Holocaust scenes. Profoundly shocked by the photographs of corpses he saw after the war, he explained that his Jewish consciousness would not let him distance himself far enough from the photographs to use them in creating art.” And yet, as anyone can see, this looks very much like Holocaust painting. Bloom’s corpse painting is a Holocaust painting not only because it shows a corpse but also because of the temperament One of the most fascinating trajectories that Jewish artists take — though still an under-treaded path — is painting as a means of biblical interpretation. Bombay-born painter Siona Benjamin (who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years) paints radical, feminist, non-Western, deeply religious subject matter that grounds her feminism in the texts, depicting such female biblical characters as Lilith and Eve. Richard McBee has spent much of his recent career depicting the sacrifice of Isaac from a variety of perspectives, in different styles, with different props and costumes. Benjamin, McBee and others unlisted in Baigell’s book mix Jewish subject matter and painting in a mutualistic recipe. Thirty years later, after Rosenberg worried that Jews could not define Jewish art, a now-famous Jewish Museum show asked if certain art wasn’t too Jewish. Jewish art can be too Jewish if it takes its Jewish content more seriously than its aesthetic identity. Similarly, it is not Jewish enough if it only uses its Jewish content coincidentally — as do the bulk of the works Baigell collects. The true brew must be bilingual, equally dynamic both visually and in its exploration of Jewish content or themes.

Menachem Wecker is a painter and the assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C.

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