What Makes Jewish Art Jewish?

The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of L...

The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance with Old Customs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The short answer is that there is no real answer-or perhaps, many answers. The problem begins with the definition of "Jewish"-which is both a historical and a conceptual problem. Abraham was called a Hebrew and Moses and David were Israelites-the words "Jew" and "Jewish" didn't exist yet. When exactly does Judaism begin? What is Judaism: a religion? An ethnicity? A nation? A culture? A body of customs and traditions? A civilization? If we apply the adjective "Jewish" to the noun "art" the problem expands. Are we referring to symbols, subject, content, style, intent, purpose as these elements are part of the work of art? Are we talking about the artist's identity? What of a convert into or out of Judaism: does his/her art suddenly become or cease to be Jewish?

What of an 18th-century Eastern European spice box for Havdalah, almost certainly made by a Christian artisan (due to guild restrictions and inhibitions), contrived in the late Baroque style known as rococo and offering a strong visual relationship to Catholic monstrances?  Our criterion in this case must be its purpose. Moritz Oppenheim's ca 1850 painting, "Sabbath Afternoon," will be labeled Jewish art due to the identity of the artist and his subject, but an Impressionist landscape by Pissarro a generation later will be defined as Jewish strictly in terms of the artist-secular but known by everyone as a Jew.

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (...

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (45 in × 36 in). Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What of Mark Rothko's canonical works of a century later? His chromatic Abstract Expressionism would at first glance offer nothing particularly Jewish about it-until one realizes that Rothko is trying to put the world back together again (tikkun olam) after Auschwitz and Hiroshima on his large, frameless paintings that glow from within with light (that ultimate ordering element, in Genesis I) and which push the viewer's eye toward a unifying center.

The criteria are likely change, depending on the time and place. When we recognize that the First Temple was built for an Israelite king (Solomon) by Tyrians (Phoenicians) and that the second Temple was built by Judaeans, we might well shy away from referring to them as examples of "Jewish" architecture. But we still need to ask what the basis is for defining, say, the mosaics on the Bet Alpha synagogue floor (ca 525 CE) as Jewish. They served a Jewish community; part of their subject and symbols are distinctly Jewish-the image of the akeda and that of the Holy of Holies flanked by two Temple menorot-but the central area offers a zodiac with Helios, God of the sun, riding his chariot. So are the mosaics part Jewish and part not-or are they all Jewish in being part of a synagogue?

Many are the contemporary Jewish artists who wrestle with this question: depending upon the particulars of a work of art and its maker, the criteria cannot be boxed into a simple frame. But then asking questions without easy answers is the consummate Jewish art-ask the rabbis who made the Talmud!

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Finding a Niche

Joslyn Art Museum fountain court in Omaha, Neb...

Joslyn Art Museum fountain court in Omaha, Nebraska (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In October, I gave a tour of Jewish artists in the collection of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.  The tour was just of the permanent collection that was hanging in the galleries that day.  My tour was for a group of Jewish scholars who had been invited to Omaha to present papers at the Klutznick Harris Symposium.  After 2 days of listening to scholarly presentations, the group of 10 scholars looked forward to enjoying a visit to the local art museum.

I like giving tours of the permanent collection of the Joslyn, because I’ve been hanging around the museum since 1993 when I moved to Omaha for an internship there.  I was looking forward to having a group of Jewish scholars with diverse backgrounds to chat with about the art and artists.

Doing research about the Jewish artists in the collection was eye-opening to me.  Most were definitely acknowledging that they were Jewish, but for the most part, they were artists who happened to be Jewish.  Jewish themes were the farthest thing from the subjects of their art.

So why give a tour of Jewish artists, when most didn’t want the viewing public to even know they were Jewish?

This brought up a question that I’d struggled with in graduate school.  My advisor had begun to write a lot about Jewish art and artists.  It was eye-opening to me at that time in my life when I was trying to find my way as a young scholar.  Everyone knew I was Jewish, and I actively participated in assorted Jewish activities on campus.  However, I really wasn’t interested in pursuing research on Jewish art or artists.  It seemed, at that time, very limiting, and I didn’t want to put myself into that box,  a Jewish art historian writing about Jewish art and artists.  I was much more interested in women artists and the Feminist movement, and limiting myself to Jewish artists didn’t feel comfortable.

After moving to Omaha, finishing my dissertation, and realizing that I was going to stay here to raise my family, I began thinking differently.   What could I do research on, and where could I present it?  What niche could I fill in this city where I now lived?  Then I began to realize that I felt comfortable in the role of a Jewish art historian who researched Jewish artists, and there were actually people in Omaha who were interested in my research.

So, here I am in Omaha, feeling  comfortable being known as a Jewish art historian who has found my niche, and JAE is a great place to explore being a Jewish art historian.

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