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In 1966, the eminent art critic Harold Rosenberg addressed an audience at the New York Jewish Museum and reflected on the nature of Jewish art.
“Is there a Jewish art?” he began. “First they build a Jewish Museum, then they ask, Is there a Jewish art? Jews!”
The good ole’ Jewish humor belies the radical shift that was unfolding at precisely the time and place that Rosenberg spoke. Modern Jewish art had quietly taken shape in America over the prior two decades. But now, in the mid-1960s, just as Rosenberg would finally pronounce its name, modern Jewish art would become something else entirely.
What did modern Jewish art mean to Rosenberg, the man who championed Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and the other American Action Painters (to use Rosenberg’s term; today we call them Abstract Expressionists)? The final paragraphs of Rosenberg’s talk proclaimed the newfound dominance of American art and also gave voice to an American-Jewish dream dominant at mid-century:
Amazingly, all of these artists were Jewish. So why did Rosenberg call their work a genuine American art? Why not Jewish art?
“This work, inspired by the will to identity, has constituted a new art by Jews which, though not a Jewish art, is a profound Jewish expression, at the same time that it is loaded with meaning for all people of this era.”
If it’s not a Jewish art, what makes it a profound Jewish expression?
“In the chaos of the 20th century, the metaphysical theme of identity has entered into art, and most strongly since the war. It is from this point that the activity of Jewish artists has risen to a new level…American Jewish artists, together with artists of other immigrant backgrounds–Dutchmen, Armenians, Italians, Greeks–began to assert their individual relation to art in an independent and personal way.”
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