Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What is Jewish Art?

In today's Tablet magazine -- "Seeing Double: A Jewish literature is easy to identify. But defining Jewish art is a task of Talmudic complexity, as a new book, Jewish Art, makes clear," a review by Adam Kirsch. The article includes a summary of some of the earlier writers who dealt with the question of what could or should make an artist "Jewish." Was it subject matter? The artist's personal history? And in some sense, did the designation suggest some hint of lack or respect for the artist as an artist?

Imagery and stereotypes about Jews are one focus of Jewish Art, written by Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver. Kirsch discusses, for example, the book's treatment of the use of Christian imagery in the World-War-II era paintings by Chagall, such as the one above.

Kirsch wrote: "For many 19th-century thinkers, the principle that Judaism was incapable of, or hostile to, visual beauty was taken for granted. In his passionately revisionist study The Artless Jew, Kalman P. Bland shows that this belief was shared by Gentiles hostile to Judaism, including Hegel and Wagner, as well as by Jews like Freud and Rosenzweig."

I found the ideas here thought-provoking, especially the discussion of the numerous abstract expressionist artists of Jewish origin. Kirsch wrote:"Perhaps, then, we would better off talking not about Jewish art, but about a Jewish way of seeing and talking and writing about art—one that situates paintings in a universe of Jewish discourse about the power and danger of the image. This concept restores primacy, in what feels like an authentically Jewish way, to the word and the interpreter, rather than leaving it with the image."

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