Academic journal article Shofar

Revealing Jews: Culture and Visibility in Modern Central Europe

Academic journal article Shofar

Revealing Jews: Culture and Visibility in Modern Central Europe

Article excerpt

On a memorable evening in November 1996, the eminent art historian and Viennese émigré Sir Ernst Gombrich (1909–2001) spoke at a gathering hosted by the Austrian Cultural Institute in London. Gombrich, who had left Austria for Britain sixty years earlier, had received dozens of honors for his foundational work in art history, including his pioneering Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, first published in 1960. But that night, Gombrich addressed a question on the minds of many: how did Jews influence the visual arts in fin-de-siècle Vienna? Given his own family’s classification as Jewish by the Nazis, even though his parents converted to Protestantism after they married, Gombrich was understandably emotional about the topic. Drawing upon the words of art dealer Serge Sabarsky, a fellow Viennese émigré whose clients had included many Jews, Gombrich passionately insisted that because these patrons did not think of themselves as Jewish, even raising the question was akin to the Nazis’ despicable project of identifying Jews.1 Scholarly references to his talk have abounded since then, crystallizing the debate between those who seek to understand why it mattered that an undeniable overproportion of Jews were involved in shaping the culture of modern Central Europe, and those who deny that it did.

Given Gombrich’s status, some consider it difficult—or perhaps even immoral—to oppose his point of view. The fact that it is echoed by other eminent scholars who fled Nazi Germany, such as Eric Hobsbawm and Peter Gay, does not make it easier.2 Yet, as Joan Scott reminds us, it is imperative for historians to maintain a critical distance from the testimony of eyewitnesses, especially when it comes to histories of difference. When we accept a person’s account of experience as “uncontestable evidence,” we take self-identification as self-evident and naturalize difference rather than expose the system that constructed it in the first place. Class, race, and gender are not natural subsets of society; in order to understand how they work, we must expose the “assumptions and practices” inherent in eyewitness testimony.3

The authors of these meticulously researched books from the disciplines of history, art history, and German studies thoughtfully and skillfully push back on the viewpoints of these esteemed eyewitnesses. By critically analyzing and properly contextualizing a wide range of sources, including texts, images, and objects that don’t show obvious markers of Jewishness, each book injects new meaning into age-old questions about why Jewish difference mattered in the creation of modern culture in Central Europe. Rather than searching in vain for suitable parameters within which to justify including a building, artwork, film, or theater production, the authors focus instead on how culture engaged the socially coded categories of the “Jewish” and “not-Jewish.”

Each takes as a given that differences between Jews and non-Jews were often not clearly articulated, arguing that, with proper contextualization, such texts and images can nevertheless provide strong evidence for why it mattered that their creators or patrons were Jews. As Wallach puts it, “the social conditions and inner-Jewish discourses that influence the creation of these cultural products” are worth studying, since “Jewish cultural production originated under different circumstances.”4 Shapira claims that the productive relationships between Jews and non-Jews show that modernism allowed Jews to convey aims of emancipation and cultural authority even if their presence was not obvious.5 And Gluck posits that this ambiguity and elusiveness serves as the hallmark of Jewish modernity: “Though largely created by Jews, Jewish Budapest was not restricted to Jews and lacked a specifically Jewish face.”6

These books are evidence of a paradigm shift in modern European Jewish studies toward cultural history. …

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