Reimagining the "Artless Jew": A Commentary on Recent Interventions in Jewish Art History

By Morris, Daniel | Shofar, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Reimagining the "Artless Jew": A Commentary on Recent Interventions in Jewish Art History


Morris, Daniel, Shofar


Reimagining the "Artless Jew": A Commentary on Recent Interventions in Jewish Art History The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual, by Kalman P. Bland. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

The Nation Without Art: Examining Modern Discourses on Jewish Art, by Margaret Olin. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Twentieth-century visual cultures would be impoverished without the groundbreaking contributions made by Jews in a variety of media. Think Chagall, Soutine, Modigliani, Rothko, Arbus, Spielberg, and Spiegelman, to name a few. In spite of the work of Jewish artists, the powerful ideological assumption and often antisemitic perception of Jews as "artless," or as an imitative people without their own style, and hence "parasitic" upon the national cultural styles in which they have found themselves, has persisted in textbook art historical surveys at least through the 1980s. Only in the last few years have art historians begun to interrogate the history, not so much of Jewish art, but of the idea whether the Jew has, historically, been artless.

Kalman Bland and Margaret Olin reveal the origins of the "history" of Jewish aniconism-or the resistance to the making of idols or images-to be a fiction of comparatively recent (that is, 19th century, European) vintage. Jews of ancient and medieval times would not have recognized themselves as aniconic. Bland shows that Maimonides, the medieval philosopher, wrote in praise of beauty as a physical pleasure unrelated to manifestations of divine power, and so not in conflict with the Second Commandment. Bland also documents how Jewish travelers in the medieval period attended mindfully to the visual treasures gazed upon in Egypt and in Palestine. Olin reminds us that the Torah describes the work of Bezalel of the tribe of Judah, who, during the biblical flight from Egypt, crafted the ark of the tabernacle our of acacia wood, and of Hiram, the Jew who built the Temple of Solomon, The Sarajevo Haggadah (Spanish, 14th c.), the mosaic floors with Jewish figural art at Beit Alpha, an ancient synagogue, and the "elaborate representational murals in the third-century synagogue at Dura-Europos in Syria," are compelling artifacts that document Jewish artfulness (Olin, p. 131).

In "Jewish Art Without a Question Mark," an essay in Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness and Modern Art, another groundbreaking study in Jewish art history, Elisheva Revel-Neher argues that visual culture became a rare forum through which Jewish "outsiders" could define themselves:

Without autonomy, without a land of their own, without the right to decide and choose for themselves where and how to live, work, and die; persecuted, exiled, converted by force, marked as cattle, burned at the stake along with their books, Jews nevertheless found in artistic expression a way to emphasize their contested identity. In the architecture of synagogues and their décor, and in the illumination of handwritten texts, the Jews used the styles and forms that were commonly available. Particular styles were not the issue, only the means of expression. The central characteristic of Jewish art was in its language, the visual vocabulary formed by Jewish iconography.1

Other historians have not always pledged allegiance to material artifacts or read their Bible to create accurate narratives about the existence of Jewish art throughout the ages. Instead of fidelity to fact, the erasure of Jews from art history has been part of a project to retroactively create an unflattering image of Jews. Since the development of art history as a scholarly held coincided with the rise of the nation state, Jews were categorically denied a place within that history:

Jewish artists could be described as possessing a strange and Oriental sensibility, as devoid of artistic sensibility or as antagonistic toward art altogether. Jews were written out of art history either as marginal to it or as a people defined by deficiencies: a lack of history, a lack of land, and a lack of art. …

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