Projecting Culture: Jewish Art Historians and the History of Art History

By Soussloff, Catherine M. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Projecting Culture: Jewish Art Historians and the History of Art History


Soussloff, Catherine M., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


LET ME BEGIN MY DISCUSSION OF JEWISH ART HISTORIANS and the history of art history with an early essay by Salo Baron written in 1928 soon after his emigration to New York from Vienna. The essay, "Ghetto and Emancipation: Shall We Revise the Traditional View?" [1] In this essay, perhaps for the first time, Baron grapples with the problems of self-definition which European Jewry confronts in the face of modernity, surely a topic which came to Baron as a result of his experience in the complex context of fin-de-siecle Vienna. This society, often characterized by the extreme contrasts of the ideals of a Germanic liberalism and a virulent antisemitism endorsed by the ruling mayoral party, also produced a justifiably famous cultural flowering of art, literature, medicine, and philosophy.

The stark contrasts of the political and social situations in Vienna in the first twenty-five years of this century, together with the presence of Jews of the varied backgrounds represented in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, made many Jews aware of the problems of modern society. [2] These contradictions led them to try harder to overcome the resistance of prejudice and tradition--forcing them, in effect, to produce the kind of modernity we associate with the art of Oskar Kokoschka, the music of Arnold Schoenberg, and the science of psychoanalysis. This is the environment which also produced what is known as the Viennese School of Art History. Although the fathers of this school--men such as Alois Riegl (1858-1905), Franz Wickoff (1853-1909), and Julius von Schlosser (1866-1938) were not Jews, many of their students, trained at the University of Vienna between 1900 and 1933 were: Ernst Kris (1900-57), Otto Kurz (1908-75), Hans Tietze (1880-1954), and Ernst Gombrich (b. 1909) among others.

Steven Beller ties the positive cultural outcomes of the Viennese situation to "a continuing and very powerful Central European Jewish tradition...stemming from the adaptation of traditional Jewish thought and practice in the German, Mendelssohnian Haskalah of the eighteenth century and the subsequent ideology of emancipation." Following George Mosse and other earlier historians, Beller argues that "the great stress on education and ethics of premodern Jewish life was transformed into a great stress on education and ethics ... based on development of the self...." This distinctly modem cultivation of the sell adopted by the German bourgeoisie is known to historians and cultural critics by the German term, Bildung. The concept appears essential to understanding Jewish assimilation and/or acculturation in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Again, according to Beller: "The emergence of the new Central European Jewish tradition did not mean rejection of the old Jewish tradition, but its adaptation and tran sformation, and hence its continuation into the new forms, which, though they might in one sense be a 'subculture' of the larger German liberal culture, continued to have their own sources of motivation and inspiration, continued to be Jewish" (60-51).

It was this situation of the emergence of various kinds of Jewish identities in the culture of modernity which Salo Baron addressed in his essay, "Ghetto and Emancipation." Importantly, he did not view Jewish emancipation as a sign of modernity or, as he put it, "the dawn of a new day after a nightmare of the deepest horror." Rather, Baron understood that this "tension-filled social contract" [3] meant that "the Jews stood to lose much--the very core of their group identity--in receiving the rights of citizenship." Yet, this social contract produced in Vienna, at the very least, new kinds of cultural possibilities and works, which we today value as some of the greatest expressions of modernity. On the other hand, as Baron observed, "emancipation was a necessity even more for the modem State than for Jewry" (524) because there existed within the ideals of liberalism itself, with the stress on the value of the individual above all else, the necessity for the banishment of collective identity, such as Jews had had in the ghetto. …

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