Art History: Where Are the Jews?
Leo Segedin   |   June 8, 2010 |   Print this essay


Recently, I gave a couple of papers on the problems of minority artists in which I discussed the efforts of women, Black and Hispanic artists to establish their identity in the contemporary art world. These artists demanded recognition of their work and, after years of politicking, they were successful. Most art historians now identify a Feminist, Black and Hispanic art. Not only are many of these artists represented in art history texts; gender, race and culture are now legitimate contents of contemporary works of art. In this paper, I want to discuss the problems involved with the art of another minority, the art of the Jews. When, 40 years ago, these other minority artists were clamoring for recognition, Jewish artists did not. Although they supported the demands of other minorities for identity in the art world, they made no claims for their own. Why not? Why, in spite of the large number of Jewish artists represented in the art world today, has there been no recognition by art historians of a Jewish art? In fact, where are the Jews in art history?

In this paper, I will NOT try to establish the existence of a Jewish art, but I do want to discuss the absence of Jewish art in the academic discipline of Art History. I intend to explore the history of this discipline and in it, the place and perception of Jews. I will argue that the subjects of the discipline of Art History national or cultural art styles - are academic concepts rather than physical realities and as such, necessarily reflect the assumptions and biases of art historians. I hope to establish the idea that, like the notion of 'race' in traditional anthropology and biology, rather than describing existing styles, art historians create them. In doing so, they also determine the way we perceive the qualities of art works within these styles. Of course, academic concepts may be insightful, but we do not recognize the extent to which they can also be deceptive and pernicious. By selecting only certain objects - by attributing transcendent qualities and meanings to them — art historians have turned some objects into significant, valuable Works of Art, while debasing or marginalizing others. According to the assumptions of these historians, although they were aware of art objects made by Jews and/or for Jews, such objects did not constitute an identifiable, Jewish art. I maintain then that at least one explanation for the absence of a Jewish art in Art History lies in the history of the discipline of Art History itself.

Academic Art historians claim that "art history is a science with definite principles and techniques…." (Rotkill) and present their discipline as an objective study of the development of painting, sculpture and architecture (Wikipedia). Although recognizing that interpretation and judgment may occasionally play a part, these historians do not acknowledge the extent to which such history has been limited to categorizing, labeling and interpreting particular, usually European, works of art in terms of national art styles and periods, relating the works of individual artists within these categories and arranging them in developmental chronologies. Only since the 1960s has the art of the Far East, Africa and Oceana, and during the last 20 years, that the art of women, Australian Aborigine, Hispanic and Black American artists qualified as categories for inclusion. Only during the last 15 years have art historians begun to re-consider what a Jewish art might be.


Traditional Art History definitions of art are based on notions of 'style', the assumption that art objects created during particular periods of time in particular places by particular people will have identifiable, common characteristics, but because they are descriptions of selected commonalities rather than of existing objects, styles really are verbal abstractions. Although it is certainly true that words can point to aspects of a painting that we would otherwise miss, unique qualities of individual paintings can get lost or transformed in these often ill-defined categories. Styles can be judgmental. Names like 'Gothic', 'Baroque', 'Impressionism' and 'Cubism' were originally negative terms. Now they are considered to be 'objective' categories and the perceived qualities of works of art so labeled have changed accordingly. Abstractions about style can become substitutes for vision, as when we discuss Impressionism rather than the specific qualities of paintings by Monet and Degas. Even worse, qualities imagined by historians can be projected into the art object as attributes. For example, a painting said by a major art historian to be by Vermeer 'has' certain qualities which it loses when seen as a fake by Van Meegeren. Attributes can appear or disappear depending on the language of different historians. In this way, during the last 150 years, the qualities attributed to art works created by Jewish artists have changed. When the words changed, the attributes changed.


Art history didn't become the academic discipline it is now until the 19th century, (1842) primarily in Germany. Until then, there was no thought of national or period styles, no consideration of entities like 'Renaissance' or 'Baroque' art. According to the few Italian historians who wrote about art in the 16th century, to the north were the barbaric abominations of the Gothic cathedrals and from outside Europe, the primitive, heathen sculptures of the Aztecs and Incas. Western art history consisted of occasional, idiosyncratic biographies of early Italian artists and descriptions of the objects they made. Although, by the 18th century, art historians discussed 'Schools' of painting in the many independent, Italian city-states, like Florence and Siena, there was no national Italian art, since there was no Italian nation. There were Jewish artists working for Christian and Jewish patrons, but such identification was suppressed. Christian conceptions of art would not account for them.

Although contemporary art historians identify the 'Renaissance style' as existing in Italy from 1400 to 1520, no one living during this period was aware of it. The biographer, Giorgio Vasari, in his writing about major Italian artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo in the middle of the 16th century, never labeled them 'Renaissance' artists. French and English writers had used the term in the early part of the 19th century, but the idea of 'Renaissance' as a historical period with an identifiable style did not appear in Art History literature until the middle of the 19th century when the German historian, Jacob Burkhardt, first articulated the concept.

Thus, this notion of "style" also had a historical as well as a cultural bias. Until then, while idealizing Classical, Greek sculpture, European conceptions of art did not allow for the existence of any kind of significant, non- Western art. However, as France and England expanded their power into Egypt and the Middle East in the 18th and 19th centuries, Western scholars became aware of how diverse the arts of the ancient, non-Western world were. How explain the radical differences between Michelangelo's sculpture of David, a monumental statue of Ramses III in Egypt or the human-headed, winged bulls at the gates of Assyrian palaces? Art historians concluded that such art works were either failed attempts to achieve Western standards or did not have the same goals. Ultimately, they decided that, while different and inferior to what was produced in the West, these works represented the highest achievements and, therefore, the essence of the great civilizations of the past. By the 19th century, along with language, art became thought of as an essential aspect of national, cultural and even racial identity. The German art historian, Karl Schnaase in 1848, maintained that:

Art is the central activity of peoples. In art, all aspirations and feelings, spiritual, moral and material, come into the most intimate contact and define themselves. Therefore, art provides the means to measure and determine the direction and strength of these individual potentials.
Art was thus seen as representing the fundamental, identifying psychology of entire 'peoples'. The German art historian, Alois Reigl, suggested that each 'people' had its own mode of perception, its own what he called 'will to form', which permeated everything it did. Another German art historian, Wilhelm Worringer, distinguished between 'types of man'. There was, for example, Classical Man, in the southern Greek tradition, who was serene, at peace with nature, concerned with appearances which presented a harmonious reflection of the world. There was also the Northern Man who was subjective, empathetic, expressing uneasiness and terror before a hostile environment, who emotionally distorts nature, feels self-contempt, etc. As late as 1960, Werner Haftmann, in his popular art history text, 'Painting in the Twentieth Century', continued this distinction. There is, he wrote, a Mediterranean Mode which includes the French, Italian, Spanish and also Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism. This Mode has rationality, harmony and sensitivity. There is also the Germanic or Nordic Mode which includes Expressionism, the Bauhaus and the Blue Rider. This Mode is subjective, metaphysical and speculative. Jewish artists like Chagall, Soutine and Modigliani have little in common stylistically, and, if they have any similarities at all, it would have to be in terms of his Nordic Mode. This is apparently unacceptable, so Haftmann created a 'Jewish strain'.

This idea that so called 'peoples', 'nations' and 'races' can be identified by their inherent, psychological characteristics, reflected in their art, thus had 'nationalistic' and therefore, political implications. It certainly substantiated the development of 19th century European nationalism, especially among the many independent, German speaking principalities and duchies where efforts were being made to unify them into a single, German nation. Germany in the mid 18th century consisted of 294 states or 2,303 territories and jurisdictions as well as being divided among Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholics. Other than language, what did they all have in common? Art history became a respected academic discipline in German and Austrian universities, supported by the state, partially as a result of German art historians' efforts to find that commonality in art history. They sought to identify the essential, unifying characteristics of all art produced by German speaking people, determine what distinguished it from the styles of other nationalities and races and, of course, what made it superior.

The history of art thus became the story of the art of a 'people' having the same assumed racial and ethnic origins. Such art was described as having developed from tribal beginnings in the dark and misty, primal past into the high, cultural levels achieved in contemporary German painting and sculpture. In this categorization, even the "Gothic' French cathedral was idealized and adopted as German architecture. Such identification was probably a way of compensating for German sense of inferiority in relation to the then internationally famous Impressionism of the French art world. This new 'biological' definition also became a rationale for the notion of 'inferior races', a validation for racial stereotyping. It was also used to justify anti-Semitism and the notion of the artless Jew.

Art in the 19th century not only no longer served practical or even educational functions. It had become a search for metaphysical Truth as revealed by great Art. Great art was characterized by its spiritual, religious qualities, meaning, of course, Christian, German Art. Here is the German, Christian philosopher, Georg Hegel, in the 1820s, on Art:

In works of art, the nations have deposited their richest inner intuitions and ideas, and art is often the key, and in many nations, the sole key, to understanding their philosophy and religion. Art shares this vocation with religion and philosophy, but in a special way, namely by displaying highest (reality) sensuously, bring it thereby nearer to the senses, to feeling, and to nature's mode of appearance.

In the 19th century, the Jews in the Germanic countries were seen as a transient, non-Christian, non-believing people. As outsiders, they could not be allowed to participate in German cultural and civic institutions. Most Jews lived in segregated communities. Although they were sometimes identified as a 'Jewish Nation' or a 'state within a state', they had not been a nation for almost 2000 years. Their psychological characteristics were, therefore, defined in terms of their religion and their so-called 'race'. The absence of Jewish art in the canons of art history was thus explained by German art historians as a sort of anomaly, by the assumption that the Jews had no art, were even anti-art, because in their religion, the 2nd Commandment forbade the making of images and required them to concentrate on abstract and mystical issues, or the obverse, that Jews were by genetic disposition a materialistic people, more interested in accumulating money though commerce than spiritual experiences. The Jews were said to be by nature a verbal, not a visual people, perhaps capable of creating poetry, but nothing in the visual arts. The German art historian, Hermann Gundersheimer, in the Encyclopedia of the Arts, summed up this view, maintaining that "the Jews have no specific tendency toward form or content, that there is no connection in the works of Jews binding them together, no style, no need for expression".

This assumed absence of Jewish art created several problems for 19th century German art historians. How explain the descriptions of art made by and for Hebrews in the Bible? How explain the remains of art made by Jews being discovered by German archaeologists in the Middle East and elsewhere? Their answer was to disparage such works or by attributing them to other sources. The German archaeologist, Immanuel Benzinger, after observing the Jewish murals in the 3rd century synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria, wrote, "...the Israelites lacked from the beginning artistic talent." Therefore, such works were categorized by art historians in terms of Greco-Roman or early Christian influences, rather than as examples of Jewish art.

For these historians, the ancient Hebrews were an alien, Semitic, possibly Syrian people, similar in character to the Babylonians and Assyrians. As such, they must have indulged in the same superficial, materialistic luxury and extravagant, Oriental fantasy. Their art, therefore, had to be described as, at best, the crude forerunners of the more sophisticated, metaphysical, Christian art of the 19th century. On the basis of the very meager descriptions of Hebrew architecture and ritual objects described in Exodus and limited knowledge of Assyrian art, they created an exotic, mostly imaginary, Hebrew art. Here is one of the first academic, Art historians, the Prussian, Franz Kugler, in 1842:

And so we know that in their artwork, in greater or lesser degree, their main consideration was splendor and luxury, that they specifically loved bright metallic decoration, and covered their architectural interiors and also sculpture with expressive materials,(and) that ornament of splendidly colored, cleverly woven fabrics was found necessary to fit out these works.
He also characterized the cherubim on the ark of the tabernacle, referred to, but not described in the Bible, as fantastic combinations of human and animal figures "characteristic of Asiatic visuality…" Some German art historians even believed that the imagined, decorative, bright colors of Hebrew art indicated that they lacked the subtle color sense of more advanced peoples and that they possibly had a genetic perceptual weakness or even congenital color blindness.

There also remained the issue of the 2nd commandment in the Old Testament, its significance for Christian art and, thus, its impact on the possibility of Jewish art.

From the King James version:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, nor any manner of likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, nor that is in the earth beneath, nor that is in the water under the earth. ...the likeness of any male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the heaven, the likeness of anything that creepeth upon the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth. ... Thou shalt not bow down to them and thou shalt not serve them.
This is obviously a prohibition against image making, but it can be interpreted to mean either a rejection of all imagery or a proscription against idolatry. German Protestants and Catholics developed different rationales for its interpretation and, therefore, different attitudes toward the significance of what a Jewish art might be. For the Catholics, imagery was useful and necessary; for most Protestants, it was taboo. Either the commandment allowed the use of imagery, of icons, of statues and representational paintings, as a means through which to attain access to sacred Truth or rejected that use as forbidden idolatry, because it could be used as a substitute for that Truth. Catholics, therefore, accepted any indication that the Biblical Hebrews had a visual art, whereas Calvinists admired Jewish aniconism. Even for those who promoted the significance of images for Christian culture, like Hegel, Art, even with a capital A, because of the materiality of painting and sculpture, was still inferior to more spiritual philosophy and Christian religion.

For anti-Semitic historians, the commandment not only meant that the Jews could have no art; they must also be against the making of any art. Jews were thus described as being incapable of contributing to the formation of national German art. Because they could not create a viable art of their own, they must be capable only of imitating and transmitting the art of other peoples. They were, therefore, described as rootless cosmopolitans, able only to contaminate authentic, German art with decadent, foreign art, like French Impressionism, typified by the French-Jewish painter, Pissarro. And so forth....


There have always been Jewish artists, but only since the end of the 19th century have there been Jewish art historians. Gradually, as a result of German emancipation during the 19th century, in spite of remaining anti-Semitic restrictions, Jews were allowed to enter some of the disciplines of the German universities. Art history, being one of the newer and least traditional disciplines, offered easier access so that by the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933, Jews were playing major roles in the discipline. By then, it was hard to tell that these historians were Jews. In order to become accepted as German art historians, many Jews assimilated, usually by conversion, Protestant in the north, Catholic in Bavaria, a matter of form rather than faith. For many of those who did not convert, their Judaism, at the most, became merely a private religion, having nothing to do with their cultural and social life. Many changed their names, dress, diet, language, even gestures. Because they could not become generals and judges in German society, as they became economically secure, in the arts, they became art collectors, art critics, connoisseurs and gallery owners, as well as art historians. They did this not only because they thought it was necessary that they assimilate in order to be accepted in German society. With some exceptions, they so greatly admired German culture, in comparison to what they saw as the restrictive, traditional Jewish life, they desperately wanted to become part of it.


German-Jewish art historians immersed themselves in the history of Christian, European art, Middle Eastern and Chinese art, but, with a few exceptions such as German, synagogue architecture, they avoided anything having to do with the possibility of a Jewish art, not only because they generally accepted the idea that Judaism banned images, but also because it was not considered worthy of serious research. They might discuss the art made for Jews - Jewish ceremonial objects, for example - but not as a 'Jewish art'.

Jewish art historians did, however, bring to the discipline an outsider perspective to exploring the meanings of works of art. Taking advantage of then current Enlightenment attitudes, they stressed logic and human reasoning rather than German national identification. They contributed to the idea that art was universal, that art history was a neutral, objective study of the products of all cultures and worked to understand what psychological and cultural forces underlay it. For example, ideas of probing an artist's work for indications of his subconscious and, in the 20th century, new concepts of iconography are the products of Jews. However, none of these ideas were identified as being Jewish, certainly not in the sense that philosophy and history written by Hegel, Kant and Burkhardt is German. Nor would these historians want to be so identified. Jews assumed that they were protected from anti-Semitism by this neutral anonymity, by their identification as fully participating German citizens.


They were so wrong. About one-quarter of art historians in German and Austrian universities in 1930 were of Jewish origin. By 1934, most were gone, many having emigrated to England and the U.S. These Jewish émigré scholars included most of those who would become the best-known art historians of the second half of the 20th century. Most of them were able to obtain teaching positions at American universities such as Harvard, Princeton and New York University. Aby Warburg and Fritz Saxl brought the research resources of the Warburg Institute from Hamburg to London. Many associated with the Institute came to the U.S. Erwin Panofsky, who developed the concepts of Iconography, became a member of Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. Rudolf Wittkower held a chair at Columbia. The Austrian art historian, E. H Gombrich, a former director of the Warburg Institute, influenced many Americans with his books such as 'The Story of Art' and especially, 'Art and Illusion'. As professors in prestigious universities, they had an impact on several generations of art historians, art critics and museum curators - but not as Jews.

Although many of these historians were famous for having made major contributions to art history in Europe, when they arrived in the US, they found themselves in unenviable positions. Not only were they, as Germans, enemy aliens, they were also Jews, emigrants and foreigners in a country which was to a great extent isolationist and anti-Semitic. At the time, institutions such as ivy-league, Protestant, Harvard and 'secular' Princeton had Jewish student quotas. Harvard and Yale medical schools, for example, limited Jewish student enrollment to 10%. The Harvard administration and some members of its faculty, under the leadership of then President James Conant, continued to entertain German Nazi dignitaries until at least 1937. It was important, therefore, for them to play down their Jewish identity. They were disinterested scholars, unbiased art historians, perhaps even refugee German art historians, but never Jewish art historians. The kind of art history they promoted in their writing and teaching supported the idealistic, humanistic tradition that had previously developed in Europe. It was also quite consistent with American democratic, 'melting pot' principles. Art History had become an autonomous, historical process with its own theories and influences. Thus, until about 30 years ago, when women and Black artists protested their lack of representation, American art historians ignored consideration of ethnicity, religion, politics, race and gender.


Jewish identity was irrelevant in American Art History until about 15 years ago, when several Jewish art historians proposed that Jewish contributions to art history be recognized and explored. Since Americans had accepted and appreciated Jewishness in music, humor, even dance; why hide 'Jewishness' in the visual arts? In that vein, they advanced the idea that an unrecognized, unique Jewish subjectivity underlay the work of Jewish art historians of the previous generation. In 1996, for the first time in its history, at an annual meeting in Boston, The College Art Association of America reluctantly allowed a session on the subject of 'Jewish Identity in Art History' to be raised. In 1999, Catherine Soussloff edited 'Jewish Identity in Modern Art History' an anthology of 10 essays based on that session. Margaret Olin wrote 'The Nation without Art', a 'groundbreaking' exploration of sources of the idea of the inartistic Jew. Other Jewish historians have restudied Medieval texts about early Jewish attitudes toward art and challenged traditional beliefs that the Second Commandment prevented Jews from making art. They claimed that this idea only went back to 19th German art historians. They have also attempted to find possible Jewish content in art objects made by Jews and to determine in what ways the Jewish backgrounds of historians and critics may have influenced their writing. The status of Jewish ceremonial objects was reevaluated by some historians and permitted entry into the pantheon of Fine Art. Soussloff, Olin and others publish a magazine called 'Images: a Journal of Jewish Art and Visual Culture'. The University of Wisconsin established the Conney Conference on Jewish Art which meets biannually in Madison, Wisconsin. Although they cannot describe just what Jewish content in art might be, Jewish artists in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere are trying to create a Jewish art and Jewish art critics and historians occasionally report on it.


I have tried to show how the assumptions - the biases - of art historians determine the kinds of objects and images considered significant in the discipline of Art History, how such assumptions establish the existence or absence, the importance or irrelevance, the character and quality of works of art. The absence of Jewish art in the discipline of art history, therefore, is, at least partially, the result of such assumptions and biases. I have also tried to show that conventional concepts of style in Art History had a temporal existence. The context for such categorizations did not exist before the 19th century and no longer dominates the discipline. It only lasted for about 120 years. In fact, since there are no dominant, definable styles in the art world today, the whole notion of national, religious, gender, racial and ethnic styles may be an outdated application of traditional art historical thinking. This, of course, would also apply to the possibility of a Jewish art.

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