Though his essential purpose was, and always remained, commercial, it is ironic that at the very time Warhol was mocking Modern Art through a celebration of superficiality, he turned these Jews into exemplars and stars and, albeit unwittingly, educated the public regarding the considerable Jewish influence on 20th century culture and philosophy.
From its inception, Warhol’s “Ten Jews” proved highly controversial, arousing antagonism and almost universal hostility from art critics. Disparaging characterizations attached to the series included “crass,” “tawdry,” “vulgar,” “Jewploitation,” “pandering to the synagogue circuit,” and (my favorite) “Campbell’s soup cans with faces.”
Commentators noted that instead of transforming the commercial into the artistic, which had always been Warhol’s forte (a la Campbell’s Soup, Marilyn Monroe, etc.), the artist had turned ten great Jewish icons into something commercial and ordinary. Not atypical was a vicious review by New York Times critic Hilton Kramer, who wrote:
The way it exploits its Jewish subjects without showing the slightest grasp of their significance is offensive – or would be, anyway, if the artist had not already treated so many non-Jewish subjects in the same tawdry manner…. To the many afflictions suffered by the Jewish people in the course of their long history, the new Andy Warhol show at the Jewish Museum cannot be said to make a significant addition. True, the show is vulgar. It reeks of commercialism and its contribution to art is nil.
Despite the poor reception by critics, however, Warhol calculated that upper middle class Jewish and their cultural institutions would purchase the silkscreen editions, effectively “buying their way into the chic avant-garde,” and he was proven correct: the public, particularly upper echelon Jewish art patrons, responded enthusiastically.
Ironically, his treatment of the ten Jews was taken more seriously by a wider audience than almost any of his previous substantial artistic output. Moreover, history has proven kinder to Warhol’s “Ten Jews”: the series is now viewed more seriously and as less shallow and artificial. Many former critics have come to recognize that Warhol had simply refused to romanticize or personalize his subjects, though they were transformed into “famous Jewish people” when thrust into the consciousness of the Jewish community through the artist’s own obsession with fame and fortune.
Some contend – unconvincingly, in my opinion – that years before his “Ten Jews” became famous, Warhol had rendered an anti-Semitic depiction of Jews in “Before and After” (1962), a lithograph he created based on an illustrated newspaper advertisement for cosmetic nose surgery he had drawn years earlier. The work, which is exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, depicts two identical female profiles; on the left, however, the young woman sports a monstrous hooked beak evocative of a cartoon-cliché witch’s proboscis, while on the right she is seen, post-rhinoplasty, with a perfect, smooth nose.
Those who see anti-Semitism in “Before and After” claim that Warhol sought to portray “a nose job striving for assimilation.” At a time when many Jews were seeking surgical solutions to persecution, thousands of American Jewish teens saw a nose job as a prerequisite to acceptance among their peers. However, there is nothing at all in “Before and After” to evoke a specifically Jewish subject, nor did Warhol ever make any such suggestion. It should go without saying that there are non-Jews with unattractive noses, and I would argue that the very people who see the hooked nose as inherently Jewish are themselves engaging in anti-Semitic stereotyping.