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A Literary Review: The History Of A Myth – The Artless Jew, By Kalman P. Bland

While some ideas are foolish but harmless, others are not only incorrect but also corrosively destructive. The notion that “Jews don’t make art” is one very dangerous falsehood because it discourages Jews from seeing and appreciating their own art and most tragically, it hampers them from creating Jewish art themselves. The result is a crippling of Jewish culture.


Kalman Bland’s book, The Artless Jew, examines the history of this idea, revealing how recent and retrogressive it is. The historical record itself is unambiguous; we have documentary evidence and plenty of examples of Jewish art for more than 2,000 years. Nonetheless, even in the face of facts it is still the conventional wisdom that Jews did not and still do not make art. By examining the genesis of this idea, he goes a long way to allow us to see the historical evidence in a clear light and to ultimately encourage Jews to continue to make art, see art and, most importantly, make and see contemporary Jewish Art. Our modern Jewish culture demands no less.


This is not to say that the issue of Jewish aniconism (hostility to images and image making) is not complex. As Michael Avi-Yonah explains, “Judaism oscillated between periodic episodes of restrictive iconoclasm and lenient creativity.” The broad scope of Bland’s book can best be appreciated in a quote from Harold Rosenberg, distinguished critic and champion of Abstract Expressionism. In a 1966 talk at the Jewish Museum, titled “Is There a Jewish Art?” he quipped, “First, they build a Jewish Museum; then they ask, is there a Jewish art? Jews! As to the question itself, there is a Gentile answer and a Jewish answer. The Gentile answer is: Yes, there is a Jewish art, and No, there is no Jewish art. The Jewish answer is: What do you mean by Jewish art?” The unraveling of this conundrum begins in the understanding that the answers are “strictly chronological: pre-modern and modern.”


A superficial examination of the Second Commandment can immediately offer two interpretations; a comprehensive ban on all images no matter what the use, and a restrictive interpretation that forbids only a representation of G-d. One might even surmise that, “the second commandment theoretically licenses all visual images except one.” While the complexity of the differing views in the commentaries is explored, Bland maintains that, “As late as the 16th century, neither Jew nor Gentile ever noticed that Judaism was comprehensively aniconic. Secondly, as late as the 16th century, neither Jew nor Gentile ever understood the Biblical law to be a prohibition against the production, use or enjoyment of all visual images.”


He quotes a pantheon of Greco-Roman authors – Livy, Strabo, Tacitus, Josephus and Philo – who comment that the Jews were renowned for their prohibition against depicting G-d, not other images. It seems that as for other images, Jews could use or fashion as they wished. As for the Talmud, he maintains that the rabbis generally concur, quoting the famous passage concerning Rabban Gamliel bathing in the presence of a statue of Aphrodite. Additionally, the apparent contradiction between the prohibition on image-making and the command to craft the image of the cruvim and the copper serpent reflects the fundamental challenge for Jews to learn to be able to distinguish between an image and an idol – and not an outright ban on images.


Surveying the years between 1500 and 1800, Bland examines the works of Luther, Calvin and Voltaire, finding again that neither the pious Christian view nor the early Enlightenment saw the Jews as aniconic. Nonetheless, by the dawn of the 19th century the opinion of both Jew and Gentile had changed; suddenly, Jews didn’t make art.


According to Bland, the double-edged philosophies of Kant and Hegel were ultimately responsible for the birth of Jewish aniconism. Kant (1724-1804) maintained that, “Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish law is the commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” The fact that this powerful praise of the pure spirituality of Judaism flew in the face of the actual practice of Jewish art, did not hinder its force. Jews freed from the ghetto and breathlessly assimilating desperately needed the approval of European culture and happily agreed to dismiss their own cultural heritage.


Closing the conceptual trap, Hegel (1770-1831) condemned Judaism for exactly the same commandment. He maintained that, “Everything genuine in spirit and nature alike is inherently concrete and, despite its universality, has nevertheless subjectivity and particularity in itself.” Lacking images, according to Hegel, Judaism was therefore superficial and crass. These ideas were born into the fertile bed of 19th century Jewish emancipation and anti-Semitism. The “partisan opinion of anti-Semites who disparaged Jewish culture and diaspora Jews in Western Europe, and America who refused Zionist options”, both found the idea irresistible. Aniconism provided anti-Semites with a powerful weapon, while it provided an excuse, a way of fitting in for those Jews who “struggled to perpetuate assimilated Jewish life in the Diaspora.”


Ironically, in the early 20th century, as archeologists uncovered ancient Jewish art, and Zionist programs championed the creation of a new Jewish culture in the Land of Israel, the insistence on the impossibility of a Jewish art persisted. Included in a long list of intellectuals and writers who “should have known better” are: Bernard Berenson, Cyntha Ozick, Max Dimont, Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas and Jean Baudrillard. Even in the two most authoritative “history of art” books, Janson and Gardner, Jewish aniconism is thoughtlessly affirmed.


As Bland’s The Artless Jew documents, the momentum of an idea, once launched and nurtured by powerful social forces, takes on a life of its own. The only way to begin to effectively combat the dangerous notion that there is no Jewish art is to understand the idea of where it comes from and why people continue to believe in it. And believe in it they do. The venerable Jewish Museum in New York maintains that there is no such thing as Jewish art, only artists who happen to be Jews, objects used in Jewish ritual and subjects that are found in Jewish sources.


The notion of Jewish aniconism must be seen hand in hand with a full understanding of the actual history of Jewish art, exactly what our artistic visual heritage consists of and which artists are making Jewish art today. As we examine Jewish culture over the last 2,000 years, we will find a rich heritage that will prove the courage and resiliency of Jewish artists in the face of this pernicious myth.


Oh, yes, Jews make Jewish art.


The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations And Denials of the Visual, By Kalman P. Bland – Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2000.



Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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