Is there such a thing as Jewish Art? If so, what is it? How do you know it when you see it? Why does it matter?
Many would argue “NO,” such a category simply does not exist. There was/is no ‘Jewish’ country (although, since 1948, there is the State of Israel—but that’s a separate story); and in the past Jews have lived as a minority all over the world. Further, there is no “Jewish” aesthetic or art style as Jews have ‘adopted and adapted’ to the prevailing aesthetic in the country where they lived. And there’s no single “Jewish” media either, as there were and continue to be Jewish painters, sculptors, photographers, printmakers, video artists, etc., etc.
So, how can there be a ‘Jewish Art?’ I prefer to refer to this category of objects as “Art From The Jewish World.” Why? Here’s my thinking:
Traditionally, in the Western hemisphere anyway, the paradigm (which only came into existence about 250 years ago) for organizing worldwide art is built on an apex with “Dead, White, Male, Christian, European Artists.” And everything else is supposed to relate to that configuration. White European males were the dominant and powerful class for many centuries, so it’s understandable how this structure came into being and how it was brought by them to America. But, how does Native American art relate to this? Or Eskimo Indian art? Or Papuan New Guinea art? They don’t…other than that all of their artworks were made by humans.
Looking at the entire world of art through the prism of a culture (beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes) offers an entirely different approach. It encourages looking and attempting to understand at art in terms of what all humans share, such as life cycle events and annual observances (both memorials and celebrations). [OK. I know that in another 1000 years people may all be cloned, but for now this is what we have to work with.] Thus, “Art From The Jewish World” is organized around these events and experiences.
According to the late Professor Bezalel Narkiss (of blessed memory), [Founder and Director of The Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University] Jewish art is:
“Any object used by Jews to adorn their ritual, and any iconographic subject which enhances their understanding, their belief and ways of education. In modern fine art it includes any work consciously created to express Jewishness by a Jewish artist. ….(Jewish Art) must be studied as an integral part of the Art of the World, influenced by and influencing the culture where it was created.”
Kuhnel, B. (Ed.) (1998). The Real and Ideal Jerusalem in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Art. Jerusalem: HaMakor Printing Ltd.
As an American Jew, I would only alter Professor Narkiss’ definition by removing the last four words: “by a Jewish artist.”
Myrna Teck, Ph.D., President
The Jewish Art Education (JAE) Corporation