Jewish Art: Fact or Fancy?
Leo Segedin   |  1983 |   Print this essay

A Paper given at Northeastern Illinois University and at Beth Emet, Evanston, Illinois


The traditional way of asking this question is, 'Is there a Jewish art?' The Jewish answer is, of course, 'What do you mean by Jewish art?' In fact, 'What do you mean by 'Jewish'? and 'What do you mean by 'art'? And if the questioner is smart, he (or she) will also ask, 'Who wants to know?' and 'Why do you want to know?' 'What do you want to do with the answers?'.

Do you say, 'Yes, there is' and like the German Nazis in Munich in 1937, in an art show called 'Exhibition of Degenerate Art', use the influence of such Jewish art to explain the so-called degeneracy of all European Modern art.

Or do you defend the Jews against the attack of the anti-Semites by saying, 'No, there is no Jewish art', as did Jean Paul Sarte in his book, ‘Anti-Semite and Jew’, because the Jews have no history as do the French and Germans and exist only because the anti-Semites would not let them disappear. The Jews, he suggested, were capable of logic, argument, abstract ideas, of building mathematical and metaphysical theories, but lacked the dimension of sensibility necessary for the creation of art. Protect me from my defenders!

Or, do you say, 'Yes, there is', because you want to show that the Jews are as good as anyone else, to justify their existence by demonstrating their contributions to civilization, to prove that they are good citizens?

The reasons for the questions should be known.

The literature in the field is just as contradictory.

  • The German archaeologist, Immanuel Benzinger, wrote, "...the Israelites lacked from the beginning artistic talent."
  • The French consul, DeSauley, wrote that far from being true that there was no art among the ancient Hebrews, "The Jewish nation carried the arts to a high degree of perfection."
  • The Spanish art historian, Joseph Pijoan, wrote that, "The Jewish nation, which through its literature, occupied so prominent a position in the Orient, possessed no aptitude for the plastic arts."
  • The historian, Helen Rosenau, on the other hand, wrote that, "In the Roman period, (the Jews) were one of the leading people in the artistic field." She also wrote that "the history of Jewish Art would largely seem the history of painting and architecture. But " is not primarily in the form but the content which leads to significant Jewish art."
  • But Herman Gundersheimer in the Encyclopedia of the Arts maintains 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 issue in contemporary art is just as contradictory.

In December, 1975, the Spertus Museum of Judaica presented an exhibition called, ‘Jewish Artists of the Twentieth Century’, consisting of paintings ranging in subject matter from nudes to rabbis, from Realism to Minimal Art. The art critic, Harold Rosenberg, writing in the New Yorker, said,

Stylistically the exhibits have nothing more in common than would any randomly chosen group of the same level of quality; in regard art, being Jewish appears to be nothing more than an accident... Aesthetically, philosophically, temperamentally, the Jewishness of the creator is ... irrelevant to the creation.

But Joseph Shapiro, who helped prepare this show, while agreeing that no Jewish style was indicated by the show, says, "Jewish Art is metaphysical, intellectual, and portrays the anguished search for 'Who am I?' And Wendy Hoffman, reviewing the same exhibition for the New Art Examiner, wrote, “It doesn't make sense that there should be a general feeling, a similarity of mood, a shared sensibility among many of the works exhibited here, but there is."

It is apparent that the question of whether or not there is a Jewish Art is problematic. It involves more than just a consideration of factual history; it is very much a matter of attitude and definition.


What can the term 'Jewish art' mean? Do we mean art produced by Jews? If so, what do we mean, not only by Jewish, but what do we mean by art? Are we referring to:

  • Fine Arts such as painting, sculpture and architecture?
  • Crafts such as decorative, functional or religious objects?
  • Folk Art such as produced in the ghettos and shtetls?

Do we mean art which has a Jewish style or formal characteristics? Can we recognize Jewish art by its visual appearance?

Do we mean art which has a Jewish 'content'? If so, do we mean:

  • Jewish subject matter?
  • Jewish feelings and moods?
  • Expressions of Jewish 'racial' characteristics?
  • A Jewish temperament perhaps determined by culture?
  • Objects which serve Jewish ritual functions?
  • Jewish symbols?
  • Expressions of Jewish metaphysics, philosophy or cultural values? For example is Jewish art representational or abstract?
  • Reflections of a Jewish milieu such as Israel or perhaps New York?
  • Imagery which reflects the influence of the Second Commandment?

Each of these assumptions results in a different answer to the question.

Let us assume that by Jewish art we mean art produced by Jews. This is an easy and safe approach, at least on the surface. It is the one most often used by historians of Jewish art, lecturers and exhibitions of Jewish art such as the Spertus Exhibition and the New York Jewish Museum's The Jewish Experience in the Art of the Twentieth Century' in December, 1975. It is often the approach used by Blacks, women and other discriminated against groups to prove their worth, to prove that they have made significant contributions to civilization, etc. It is an approach intended to balance the historical record and is usually associated with lists of accomplishments in science, medicine, music, law, literature, and the military. For example, did you know that 18% of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish? It is the Great Jews of Art approach. (I didn't know he was Jewish!) Did you know that the Zeppelin was really a Schwartz?

But there are several important issues raised by defining Jewish art in terms of the origin of the artist. For example, what makes an artist Jewish? Do we include in this category Jews who converted to Christianity? Pagans who converted to Judaism? There are both and some art historians include them both.

Do we mean persons with one Jewish parent? Mother or father? Hiram, the bronzemaker, who worked on Solomon's temple's father was a Phoenician from Tyre, but his mother was a Jewess from the tribe of Naphtali. The French Impressionist painter, Pissarro's father was a Portuguese Jew from St. Thomas, but his mother may have been French-Creole.

Do we include assimilated Jews or only those who profess to be Jews? Does choice enter into it? Or is it a matter of being a member of the Jewish 'race', 'tribe' or 'people' with no choice at all?

Furthermore, is a Jew who makes crucifixes or paints or sculpts Madonnas, Christs and Saints creating Jewish art? In Spain, Jewish goldsmiths were so popular that in the year, 1415, Pope Benedict XIII forbade Christians to use Jewish craftsmen for their goblets and crucifixes. Jews even made Christian altarpieces until 1480 when Queen Isabella appointed Francisco Chacon as Court Painter for Life with the duty to prevent Jews from doing this.

Is a Pagan or Christian craftsman who makes religious objects or buildings for Jews creating Jewish Art? The First and Second Temples were made according to Pagan design. In Roman times, wealthy Jews patronized art by non-Jews. Synagogues in Rome were made by non-Jews. The earliest records concerning Jewish ritual art are a few contracts dating from the close of the Middle Ages for the manufacture of crowns for the Scrolls of the Torah (these were concluded in the south of France between representatives of the Jewish community and Christian silversmiths). Christians were known to have done Hebrew manuscript illuminations. In Germany during the 17th and 18th centuries, most Jewish ceremonial objects were made by Christians. It is apparent that a good deal of what has been called Jewish art was not made by Jews.

(A personal note - several years ago a group of fellow Jewish artists and I were asked to design a stained glass window for a synagogue in Chicago. We apparently were too expensive, so the synagogue committee went to professional stained glass window makers. They commissioned a non-Jewish friend of mine to design the window. Knowing nothing about Jewish art, he came to me for advice which I gave. Is the window he made Jewish? Is he a Shabos Goy?)


Defining Jewish art in terms of the origin of the artist also begs the question of just what kinds of art we intend to include, what about such art makes it Jewish and what significance and value does such art have?

Do we mean the Fine Arts (which, during the last several centuries, has most often meant high status painting and sculpture.)? However we read or interpret this record, it is apparent that, until the last hundred years, the Jews have not made any significant contributions to the Fine Arts. Although some exceptional works may have been made by Jews, the Jews have left no record of any Leonardo Da Vincis, Michelangelos, Durers, Van Eycks, Berninis, Phidias' or Praxiteles'. If we are referring to the contemporary Fine Art world, however, there is no question that the Jews contribute much. An exceptionally large number of Jewish artists, collectors, dealers and critics participate in the Fine Arts in New York, Chicago and other art centers. We usually refer to artists like Chagall, Shahn, Levine, etc.

Do we include the what is now called the crafts, sometimes called the useful, applied, practical or Minor Arts by which we mean the making of functional, decorative or ritual objects? This definition is intended to distinguish them from the Fine Arts which are assumed to be useless, a distinction which was not always made in the past. There is evidence that since the earliest times, the Jews were quite skillful in a variety of crafts - silversmithing, goldsmithing, engraving, sealmaking, coin minting, metal casting, embroidering, glassmaking, gem cutting and even miniature portrait painting.

In Exodus, it is said that among the Hebrews who left Egypt, there were craftsmen capable

in all manner of workmanship, to devise curious works, to work in gold, silver and in brass, and in the cutting of stone for setting, and in the carving of wood, to make any manner of skilled work".

The same words are used to describe Bezalel, the artist mentioned as the maker of the Ark. It is also mentioned in Exodus that women were skilled in embroidery.

In the Talmud, the Biblical words,'This is my God and I will adorn him', are explained this way:

Make a beautiful succo in his honor, a beautiful lulov, a beautiful shofar, beautiful tsisits, a beautiful Scroll of the Law, and write it down with fine ink, a fine reed, and a skilled penman, and wrap it around with beautiful silks.

In Roman times, Josephus, the Jewish historian and turncoat, refers to the beautiful Jewish art objects which Titus carried off to Rome after the fall of Jerusalem.

In later years, during the Diaspora, Jews in Europe were generally prevented from belonging to Christian art guilds which were often religious as well as craft organizations, but Jewish craftsmen were apparently numerous enough to form their own guilds, especially in Spain, Sicily and Eastern Europe. This would give them an advantage in those skills which were not included in the Christian guilds, for example, the scribes who illuminated their manuscripts, the bookbinders, the seal engravers and the embroiderers.

During the Renaissance, there were Jewish painters, none famous, (Two were members of the painters guild in Perugia.) There were engravers, goldsmiths (One was in the service of Caesar Borgia), metal workers (makers of swords and scabbards) and majolica workers. Also, the names of Jewish builders of synagogues and even sculptors are known. (A little name-dropping - The great Italian Renaissance gold and silversmith, Benvenuto Cellini's first master was a Jew and when Casanova was in London, he went to have his portrait painted by the top English miniature portrait painter - who was a Jew.)

If we include in our definition the Folk art produced in the ghettos and shtetls of Eastern Europe, then the craft tradition carried on long after the Emancipation. There were goldsmiths, gem-cutters, even watchmakers in the shtetl. Harold Rosenberg remembers his grandfather casting dreidels in lead. He also remembers pastry tables, chairs, beds, challah in the shape of birds with folded tails and peppers for eyes. Cut paper designs used on wedding contracts and such. There was also a tradition of Folk art design which included shapes of the dove, the lion and even Hebrew letters such as were used by Chagall. Folk art, however, is a minor tradition, important primarily as sources of later Fine artists.

Why this apparent absence of major Jewish Fine Art? Sometimes it is explained by the fact that the Jews often had to be ready to get up and hide or leave on a moment's notice. Also the exclusion from many of the Christian craft guilds often made it difficult to learn many of the skills necessary to become Fine artists. In addition is the fact that during a good part of the Diaspora, there was a strong belief among Jews that the Messiah would be arriving at any moment and, therefore, some rabbis preached that nothing that could not easily be moved to Jerusalem should be made. (Try carrying Michelangelo's David to Israel.)

Most often, however, this rejection is explained by saying that these kinds of arts traditionally were not valued in Jewish culture because of the influence of the Second Commandment and its apparent ban on imagery. Although this is sometimes true, the effect of this ban is often overemphasized. Thi Second Commandment says,

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 ore 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.

There is no question that the Second Commandment inhibited the development of an imagist art among Jews, especially sculpture. There were many times when attempts were made to enforce it - the times of Moses and the prophets, the Greek occupation, the Roman occupation. the Byzantine and Islamic periods, and during the Diaspora; at least, an effort was made, but often there was a contradiction between the text of the Second Commandment and its practice. We can assume, for example, that the attacks on imagery were based on the existence of imagery to be attacked. (You don't need rules to stop you from doing what you are not doing; somebody had to make all those golden calves.) Also, the Second Commandment is a proscription against idolatry. Although the Talmud restricts imagery, there is no general condemnation of art, either decorative or representational. The tradition is not negative, but ambivalent. Sometimes it was enforced, sometimes not.

The reactions to the Second Commandment were conditioned by political, religious and social circumstances. During the times of idolatry, during times when the dominant culture (for example, Byzantine and Islamic) rejected imagery, representation was forbidden. During times of cultural assimilation, the prejudice faded. During times of political turmoil, (just before the fall of the Temple, for example,) extremist nationalist elements used this Commandment to create a clear cut political issue against the Romans and their supporters. After the Fall, the issue disappeared.

In order to determine what Jews did in the arts, it is, of course, necessary to establish the accuracy of the historical record and here we run into some serious problems. Although the remains of all ancient nations have suffered through the ages, none have suffered more than the remains of the Jews. For example, between the time of David and the time of Hadrian, Jerusalem suffered through 23 sieges, 3 ending in complete devastation. Other Jewish cities suffered similar fates. After the fall of Rome, Israel was the scene of successive waves of conquest and reconquest by Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Franks and Turks. Byzantine and Medieval peoples had a habit of melting down precious metal objects to make coins and new objects. In the Diaspora, most of what the Jews made was destroyed during repeated pogroms, massacres and migrations. Often, ransom in the form of valuable objects was paid in order to avoid attacks. And, of course, a good number of the images which the Jews made were destroyed by the Jews themselves as a result of the anger of an iconoclastic rabbinate rigidly enforcing the Second Commandment.

Also, according to Michael Ledeen, the record of Jewish remains may be deliberately distorted. Remains in the Jewish catacombs in Rome and Jewish remains in other parts of Italy are deliberately being ignored, buried - destroyed - allowed to disappear or being dissipated to museums and monasteries all over Italy and that this was likely to have been true during other historical periods. If this is so, it most certainly would result in a distortion of the historical record. Because of the nature of what is known, Ledeen raises the question, "Could it be that Jewish and Christian history during this period are cut from the same cloth and that the Vatican is trying to conceal this?"

Yet enough remains to indicate that the Jews were widely and heavily spread throughout the entire Mediterranean area outside Israel before the Diaspora, some communities going back as far as the 5th century B.C. in Egypt. According to recent studies, of the 70 million inhabitants of the Roman Empire at its peak in the 1st century C.E., before the fall of Jerusalem, 7 million or 10% were Jews (many of whom were converted Pagans or of converted Pagan descent). Alexandria had a large and important Jewish community. Two of the five parts of the city were Jewish. There were 42 synagogues besides the chief synagogue which was supposed to have been fabulous. Also, in the Middle Ages, Toledo had 12 synagogues. There were large, prosperous Jewish communities in the south of Italy until the Inquisition.

There is reason to believe that what survives is a small relic of a much more extensive visual culture and, as we have suggested, that this culture included imagery. For example, according to Exodus, the Tabernacle of the Israelites in the Wilderness was covered with a cloth embroidered with two Cherubim. Standing in front of it probably were three dimensional carved wooden Cherubim covered with beaten gold. Solomon's Temple had in front of it a huge bowl supported by twelve brass oxen and two carved Cherubim covered with gold. There obviously were idols during the time of the Kings and Prophets. During the time of Herod, Jewish members of his staff did not object to having their portraits painted. The Jewish catacombs in Rome had both two and three dimensional images with Jewish and Pagan symbols and there is a record of the names of some Jewish artists from this time. The Talmud refers to the period before the Fall of the Temple and says that all forms of likenesses except those of humans were to be found in Jerusalem. In the 2nd century, even very religious rabbis went to Roman baths containing pagan idols saying that such statues were there for decoration only. The murals in the ruins of the Dura Europas Synagogue in Syria indicate an extensive tradition of figurative mural painting. There are traces of older paintings underneath the existing surface. They also may be based on a tradition of narrative scroll painting, none of which survives. Surviving Hebrew books suggest a long tradition and the earliest Christian book illustrations may have been derived from Hebrew origins (a controversial view). The 6th century mosaic floors at Beth Alpha Synagogue are apparently normal decorative features of this period. There are relief carvings at Beth Shearim. There were paintings and stained glass in synagogues in the Middle Ages. There is a tradition of imagery in the illustrations of the Haggadahs, Law Books and Bibles, although occasionally, to avoid the ban in the Second Commandment, Jews were represented with bird or animal heads. Renaissance Jews accepted representation as normal; they owned paintings, hung them on their walls, had their portraits painted and had their likenesses put on medallions. There is a tradition of representational woodcut illustration in Germany used with printing presses. In the 19th century, painting and photography, including portraits, were accepted even by the most orthodox. Even Chaim Potek's Asher Lev was not condemned for painting representational images.

We can conclude therefore that if we ignore the traditional distinction between Fine Arts and the Handicrafts, or Minor Arts, then the Jews do have a long history in the arts, but they do not if we limit ourselves to the Fine Arts. Unfortunately, the crafts do not have the high status or value that painting and sculpture do today (although that may be changing.)


Suppose by Jewish art we mean art which has a unique, recognizable style, that there are specifically Jewish art forms. If we think of style as being a particular formal character, a typical pattern of lines, shapes and colors, such as say Egyptian or Byzantine styles, then clearly there is no easily identifiable Jewish style. Jewish Art during Biblical times was a combination of Near-eastern styles - Egyptian, Phoenician, Mesopotamian, etc. During the time of the Greeks and Romans, it was Classical and Hellenistic. The style in the Jewish catacombs was Roman Classicism despite the Jewish symbolism. What ever was special about the murals at Dura-Europus, the style was conventionally Hellenistic. Islamic Jewish manuscripts followed the traditional Islamic style and Medieval Jewish art was Spanish, French or German in style. Jewish Renaissance art had typical Renaissance characteristics. Jewish artists after the Emancipation followed every existing style from the most academic to the most avant-garde.

The same conclusion must be reached about the paintings of Chagall. Although it is possible to point out Jewish symbolism in his work, his style owes more to Picasso and Matisse than to a Jewish formal concept. In any case, it takes more than the style of one artist to establish a general style which can be called Jewish. Chagall does not work in a Jewish style; he is unique.


However, the concept of style can mean more than formal characteristics. Suppose we mean by Jewish art an art with a Jewish 'content', for example, art with Jewish subject matter. We can point to paintings of different Jewish types of Jewish people - rabbis, Talmudic scholars, Bar Mitzvah bochars, grandmothers with shawls, etc. There are paintings of Jewish scenes - synagogue interiors, Jewish home interiors, ghetto streets, etc. There are paintings of Jewish themes - studying Torah, blessing candles, blowing shofars - Biblical scenes, the Holocaust, etc. An exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York used such themes as Migration, Encounters with the West, Survival, Assimilation, Tradition and Innovation. The Jewish Museum's exhibition in 1982 called Jewish Themes/Contemporary Artists used a similar approach with themes like the Hebrew Bible, Family ritual life and Jewish history.

The use of Jewish subject matter would seem to reflect a search for identity, for roots, for a heritage which is capable of giving a sense of not being isolated, of belonging to a group which is established and can accept itself. But does subject matter reflect characteristics which can be called Jewish in any significant sense? Is Rembrandt or any of the other non-Jewish artists who have used Jewish themes Jewish because of them?

Some contemporary critics reject out of hand the idea that Jewish subject matter makes Jewish art. Harold Rosenberg says,

But though art may be characterized in terms of subject matter, subject matter does not characterize it in terms of art.... To grasp the feeling of a work, one must look beyond its subject to the style in which it was painted. Style, not subject matter or theme, will determine whether or not paintings should be considered 'Jewish' or placed in some other category.


Perhaps Jewish art is art which communicates Jewish feeling. Irving Howe, in World of Our Fathers, agrees with Rosenberg that there is no contemporary Jewish style, but he wants to equivocate a bit. He refers to a painting by the Jewish-American artist, Raphael Soyer of his mother and father at riday night dinner, which Rosenberg characterized as being in the French style, but which has 'a warm glow as of chicken soup'. Howe retorts, "Exactly, and that is not a French glow." Howe also refers to other paintings by Soyer in which figures are bent, a little fearful and clumsy. He says,

These immigrant postures held through decades, seem now to be shaping the very contours of the picture; and not to be aware of this is probably to miss something of the picture's aura. ... More than subject and less than style is at stake here. One wants to speak of 'aura', tone', 'posture', 'inflection', - a felt reality.

He later refers to "a characteristic feeling, slightly awkward and given to pathos."

But is this quality Jewish or is it immigrant? And how many Jewish artists exhibit it in their work?


Is there possibly a more basic and significant kind of Jewish content which characterize the art of the Jews through history? Some writers have suggested that there is a Jewish personality, a temperament, a psychological orientation which is expressed by Jewish artists. It is one thing to talk about a possible quality of art produced during a particular milieu; it is another to characterize a whole people by its 'mentality'. This notion has appeared many times through history. For example, Jewish art has been called "more Romantic than Classic". It has been said that "the Jewish artist will always represent or return to an expressionist trend", that Jewish art "leans toward the expression of psychological content". Jewish art is supposed to "contain elements of primitivism and naivism". When compared to the Latin masters, "(Jewish artists) always give the impression of heaviness and gaucheness". "The Germanic peoples, like the Jews, lack the Latin harmony, the sense of 'measure'." "The Jewish artist, wherever he may live, is closest to the Nordic temperament". "Jewish art is entirely the product of painters who have not only Jewish origin, but also Slavonic background, and that their contribution to contemporary art is not only Hebrew aesthetic, but, perhaps even more, an almost Oriental imagery".

Two ideas are mixed up here; Jewish art tends toward Expressionism and Expressionism is a characteristic of a people, a kind of racial characteristic, permanent and unchanging. Let's take the second notion first.

In Munich, on July 19, 1937, an art show sponsored by the Nazis opened called ‘Exhibition of Degenerate Art’. (Section 8 was for the Jews). This was the show which blamed the 'degeneracy' of modern European art on the Jewish influence. When we read that the caption under Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's painting said 'Peasant at Noon as seen by the Yids' and the caption under Otto Mueller's painting, 'Gypsy Girl Sitting' said 'Jewish Longing For Desert Origins', we have no trouble perceiving this exhibition as entirely racist. (Of course, we may wonder what happened to the 'Nordic temperament' of the Jewish artist referred to earlier.)

But how do we handle the following? Werner Haftmann, a contemporary German historian in his popular modern art history text, ‘Painting in the Twentieth Century’, discusses what he calls 'the Jewish strain' in the School of Paris, that is the work of Chagall, Soutine, Modigliani, Pascin, etc. He says that, in Paris, art was created which expressed the sadness of the Jewish race, the deep lyricism of its ancient memories... (Their art) reflects nostalgia for a lost homeland... and It is remarkable phenomena that the Jewish race, doomed to live without images, should have achieved expression in the twentieth century.

(Haftmann has also written a book about Chagall.)

Is this use of the word 'race' simply a poetic way of saying 'people' or 'culture' or does it really imply that characteristics of art are determined by genes? Here is the art critic, Waldemar George:

The curse which rests on the painter (Soutine) rests on his race; it decides the whole psychic life of the artist. It leads his hand and its brush.

And the Jewish-French art historian, Elie Faure, wrote (also about Soutine):

The Semite, especially when he mixes with other ... races, has marked them with a burning sign which can be traced back to their figurative language.

Just what is it that imbues the Jewish 'race' and so uncontrollably inspires Jewish artists?

This idea that so called 'races' of people have inherent psychological characteristics goes back a long time. It appears in art history around the turn of the century as part of the reaction against the idea that the purpose of art was the imitation or idealization of nature. The German art historian, Alois Reigl, suggested that each people had its own mode of perception, its own 'will to form', which permeates everything it does. 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 and 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. The German Expressionist painters used this point of view to justify their art.

Werner Haftmann continues this distinction. There, is he says, 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. Now where do the Jews fit in? 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 creates a 'Jewish strain'. This would suggest at the very least an unconscious racism.

This kind of racism can also be found among those that believe that early environmental history creates permanent psycho-cultural, racial characteristics. Ernest Renan, wrote in the middle of the last century, that "the Semitic concept of monotheism derives from the desert" and that Semitic religions are "all head, all metaphysical, all psychological." And Juan Harte de San Juan, who died in 1592, wrote that ''the wanderings of the Jews in the inhospitable desert for 40 years eating manna created their character for all times to come despite, persecution, slavery and such".


If modern anthropological research indicates that such racial theories of personality don't hold water, then what about the idea that recent Jewish art is an art which reflects a Jewish temperament which is culturally rather than racially determined, certainly a more acceptable assumption? But such art is not the art of all Jews. As we have previously stated, European Jewish artists during the last 150 years have worked in all available styles. 'Expressionistic' Jewish artists worked in a particular cultural environment, one which was much larger than a purely Jewish one.

Art is not simply a cathartic release of personality or cultural memory or 'soul'. It involves not only a desire to express something, but also an awareness that there are forms capable of expressing something. This means that art is usually (an exception might be 'naive' art) a product of a particular milieu where art forms are available to be utilized. Such art forms are not genetically determined either (pace Jung). Most Jewish artists who used Expressionistic art forms were Ashkenazi from Eastern Europe. Many had religious backgrounds and were aware of Jewish folk art (Torah curtains, candlesticks, spice boxes, Hanukkah lamps and other ceremonial objects); they knew the symbols on them and they knew the primitive representational imagery in the Passover Haggadahs. But many also became aware of what was happening in the non-Jewish, outside world, especially the new ideas in the art world. It was this visual background which formed the context for the development of such Jewish artists.

Several other social factors contributed to this development. Many Jews wanted to be free of the religious and social restrictions of the shtetl. Some wanted to change society, to participate in reform or radical movements of the time. Others wanted to be involved in the intellectual life of European and American culture. In both cases, they wanted to be part of a more universal, international world. At the same time, concern for a national identity was in the air. Some Jews supported a revival of Jewish culture, some believed in assimilation, some in Zionism. It was never a simple matter of assimilation vs. keeping the faith. A Jew had to choose between several possible, conflicting, but not mutually exclusive, options. How does one walk between the Laws of Jewish tradition, the values of the outside, often anti-Semitic, Christian world, a desire to correct injustice and a desire to be accepted? And how does one relate all these demands to the requirements of an art - which can be the most demanding of all?

Those few Jews who wanted to be artists bad enough (for example, Chagall and Soutine) left the shtetl, often rejecting their Jewish heritage and found themselves having to relate to an entirely kind of world - the art world. As artists, they were outcasts from Jewish society. As Jews, they were outcasts from the Christian world. If they became political radicals they were social outcasts. In addition, if they wanted to express their dissatisfaction with an outmoded art style, they could easily be attracted to the avant-garde art movements of the time and become ostracized from a conservative art establishment.

It is not surprising then that some Jewish artists turned inward, were concerned with problems of identity and were attracted to avant-garde art styles which displayed characteristics of anxiety and alienation, for example, German Expressionistic movements. The attitudes resulting from such experiences could also explain a Jewish emphasis on the human figure and the portrait. During this period, Jews were not the only ones to have such feelings, but many did.

Some Jewish artists did not suffer from such conflicts or at least did not demonstrate them in their work. Some became Impressionists or idealist academicians. Some joined the School of Paris or became involved with other relatively unemotional styles. Many maintained a concern for human suffering and other social problems and became identified with the Social-Realism of the 30s and 40s, for example, Ben Shahn and Jack Levine. Some, however, joined the various abstract movements such as Geometric Abstraction or Abstract-Expressionism and, during the 60s and 70s, became very involved with the Conceptual movements (which, I suppose, could be characterized as being metaphysical or philosophical).


Aside from the Jewish attitudes indicated above, it is possible to conceive of a variety of ways in which Jewish philosophy can become part of the content of art. Perhaps this is what we mean by Jewish art. For the greater part of their history, Jews have used art as part of their religion. The objects which are used for ritual and ceremonial purposes - Hanukkah lamps, Torah shields, crowns, spice containers, Etrog boxes, tombstones, prayer shawls, plates, the Eternal Light, Kiddish and Havdala cups, etc. - have specific meanings reflecting Jewish religious concepts.

Perhaps Jewish art is in the symbols reflecting Jewish religious concepts. It is common to find a whole range of symbols in Jewish religious art, for example the menorah, the estrog, the lulov, the Tablets of the Law, the ark with the Torah, the Messianic Temple, the hand of God, the burning bush, the peacock, the two hands of the Kohanin, the Fountain of Life, the rod of Aaron, Akeda, the binding of Isaac, Biblical personages, lions, birds, the dove, the kid, etc. Some of these symbols have Jewish origins, some near-Eastern, some Hellenistic. Some are the basis for Christian symbolism. Their meanings have changed through their history. They generally refer to how the culture conceives of man's relation to God or Abraham or to significant events in Jewish history. Namenyi suggests that the common themes running through these forms and images are release from slavery, the return of the Messiah, the return to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple.

Recent artists such as Chagall, Shahn, Raymond Katz, Jankel Adler and Leonard Baskin have used Hebrew letters in their work. Others have used Jewish symbols in a variety of ways. The reasons for doing this usually is not only an attempt to create a contemporary Jewish art and reintroduce the intense emotions traditionally associated with such symbols, but also because today they seem to be ideal symbols for freedom and justice. It must be remembered, however, that the artists who use these symbols often have little stylistic similarities.


The art historian, Namenyi, suggests that the great Jewish contribution to the Western world was a unique kind of story telling, what he call the concept of 'continuous narrative'. He points out that Dura-Europus has murals which do not follow the usual mode of pagan, iconic idolatrous representation of holy persons. Traditionally, Divinity is represented as static, hieratic idols which often act as substitutes for or means divinity. These murals, however, show the passage of time in a narrative, a sequence of events from the Old Testament so that 'Becoming is expressed as a manifestation of the Will of God, the transcendent nature of God". He also believes that this Jewish kind of narrative is the source for early Christian and Byzantine art which used the same device.


Some have argued that Jewish art should be abstract. This idea is most often based on a metaphysical concept of Judaism. Running through the history of the Jews is the notion that they are philosophic, intellectual and logical. The Jews have been called "a thinking, not a shaping people" (Ernst Cohn-Weiner) and of having a moral rather than an aesthetic sense (Paul Deusen). The Second Commandment implies that the real significance of God cannot be found in the images of things, but rather is everywhere because God is transcendent. The Kabbala means that truth can be found in the abstract relationships between abstract entities such as letters and numbers. Hasidic philosophy preached mysticism and direct expression of joy. These attitudes have taken several specific forms.

The Israeli born artist, Yaacov Agam, believes that there has never been a Jewish art, but that the time has come to create one. "He desires", he says, "to give plastic form and artistic expression to the ancient Hebrew concept of reality which differs in its essence from that of all other nation". His art is abstract, geometric and deals with optical color relationships. Another Israeli artist, David Lan-Bar, on the other hand, believes in "painting that is called 'Jewish' even if it if it belongs to the Paris School", but is also convinced that the future of art lies in abstraction.

A most interesting exploration of this notion Jewish abstract art is an article by Robert Pincus-Witten (Arts, Dec. 75). The article is called 'Six Propositions for a Jewish Art'. It is basically a reaction against the Jewish Museum's 'The Jewish Experience' which he accuses of being kitschy, imagist and illustrational. I'd like to refer to the first of his propositions. He maintains that Jewish art is abstract, first because of the Second Commandment. In addition, Jewish art focuses attention on the Book, which is, he says,

a hoard of signs within which the indescribable and unnamable - the Ultimate Abstraction - may be deciphered. This decoding is not merely semantic, but syntactical as well, achieved not just through reading, but through the identification of word and word fragments, letters, spaces even, through the pious, indefatigable examination of sign systems. of which an ancillary role may be that of narrative.

He also says that this kind of abstraction predates modern abstraction which is a product of contemporary technology.

Unfortunately for the concept, Agam's art looks like Op Art, Lan Bar's, like Abstract-Expressionism and the kind of art that Pincus-Witten refers to looks just like traditional Conceptual or Minimal Art. Labels, though significant, do not in themselves create an identity. Jewish metaphysics may create an aura of difference, but does not make abstract art look that different or special. Abstract works can be given any title and, therefore, any 'meaning'. Barnett Newman, a Jewish abstract artist, labeled a series of his paintings, 'Stations of the Cross'.

The Kabbala is not usually considered to have anything to do with art, but, during the last several years, some artists have based their art on it. Michael Grobman, a Russian-Israeli who exhibited at the Spertus Museum, used the images and diagrams of the Kabbala as motifs. He also believes that through consideration of abstract ornament and shape, man returns to a more direct, primitive, childlike awareness of his origins. He says,

Turning toward ornament brings man closer to the first days of childhood, of his existence on earth, but it also brings nigh the deciphering of superhuman absolute signs. This is a temporary movement internally and externally - internally to the sources, to childhood, to the primitive, to the primary. Externally to pure knowledge, the divine, the magic - the language of the absolute. Internally into the earthy, childlike soul, obscure, but pure; externally to the divine which exists in our midst. This is return to the first elements - earth and spirit - from whom man was created. Searching for and reconstruction of the symbol is a movement along God's genetic line, that is a return to God.

(Because of the recent tendency toward conceptual and symbolic art, some non-Jewish artists and critics have used Jewish symbolism as source for creation and criticism. For example, Jack Burnham has used Kabbalist diagrams as a basis for analyzing Marcel Duchamp's, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even’.)


We come now to my last assumption as to what might constitute Jewish art (although I'm sure there must be others). Jewish art is art produced in a Jewish milieu. The only place where this might apply is in Israel and the same problem of definition exists here. There is no indication that any unique Jewish quality is characteristic of the art produced in Israel (beyond what we have previously discussed). Israeli art is similar to the art produced anywhere in the Western world - academic realism, School of Paris, Abstract-Expressionism, Conceptualism, etc. - and follows the same historical sequence. Boris Shansky, who founded the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem in 1906, painted in an academic style, but was interested in folk art. He was also interested in art, not as an expression of a Jewish 'soul', but as a craft which had economic potential. Previous to his arrival in Israel, he had been a court painter for ten years in Bulgaria and had attempted to establish a Bulgarian art style. Although an Israeli style may be detected in some of the crafts produced at Bezalel for several years after its establishment, such craft, as we have indicated earlier, does not have much claim to fame.

I suppose one could make the claim that the New York art world, which includes almost all of the avant-garde movement current today, is Jewish because a proportionally large number of artists, dealers, collectors and critics are Jewish, but this would be as gross a distortion as saying that medicine and law in New York are Jewish because of the large numbers of Jews practicing these professions.


In conclusion, let me say that the creation of a cultural art style is a long, involved process. It derives not only from a response to a continuing, collective, cultural experience, but also from a fusion of a variety of artistic influences, traditions, techniques and relationships among artists. It requires either limited contact with contradictory outside influences or a single-minded drive strong enough to block out such pressures. Such a situation just does not exist today. The Jewish artist, in so far as he is an artist, is not part of a collective Jewish experience; at best, he is on the fringes of it. The collective Jewish experience does not involve any viable art traditions. It would be anachronistic today to paint in the style of the Dura-Europus murals, cast silver using medieval techniques or illustrate Haggadahs as did the 19th century German Jews. Not that it hasn't been done or that it is not being done today. It is just unlikely that such work will have any significance to anyone outside a very small community. If there is a collective art experience today, it is of the major art movements, of the techniques and process of the 20th century as well as perhaps some of those of the past.

We cannot set out to create a national or ethnic style in the 20th century in any meaningful sense of the term. Art ideas today are international. They cannot be imposed by nationalistic bureaucrats. They cannot be limited by national boundaries. Exhibitions, books, magazines, films and TV move across borders easily. Artists today have available to them the ideas of all times and places. To put arbitrary limits on what is appropriate is destructive to creativity. The results of such limits is contrived and artificial. An artist today can only be as honest and open as he can. A Jewish artist may produce art which reflects Jewish thought, Jewish feelings and Jewish attitudes. It may be appropriate to say that this art expresses a profound Jewish experience, but not appropriate to call it Jewish art, except by the most arbitrary of definitions. It is no more Jewish art than Einstein's Theory of Relativity is Jewish physics. In the same way, art produced by Jewish artists today belong to the world.

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