From the Academy: Art History

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Samantha Baskind is Associate Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University. Her first book, Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (2004), studies the life and works of a major American artist and considers how his work reflects his Jewish background. Baskind’s more recent publications include the Encyclopedia of Jewish American Artists (2006), a pioneering reference work that presents short essays on 85 figures, and, co-edited with literary scholar Ranen Omer-Sherman, The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches (2008). Engaging fascinating artists in a range of media, Baskind’s scholarship grapples with the vexing questions of how works of art can be considered Jewish and what that Jewishness means.Baskindheadshot_1.jpg

Josh Lambert: What is “Jewish art”?

Samantha Baskind: Some scholars define any work of art by a Jew as Jewish art while others believe that the artwork must divulge something about the Jewish experience. But what is the Jewish experience? There are polymorphic Jewish experiences—both religious and cultural. Jewish art is far from monolithic in style, form, and subject because the Jewish experience is vast. Jewish history differs in each country or continent, not to mention that each generation has a different experience. And what of different levels of Jewish worship? There is no sole definition of Jewish art and over the years I have found many art historians reluctant even to try to discern one. In my classroom, an examination of the controversies around the question “What is Jewish art?” serves a valuable purpose in setting up the poles of artistic identity to be discussed.

In what ways does Jewish art require scholarly approaches that differ from those that would be brought to other traditions in art?

On the most basic level the discipline of art history attempts to discover how art influences and is influenced by cultural, religious, and sociopolitical events. This approach would not differ for the subject of Jewish art. However, it is important not to analogize the study of Jewish art to the study of Christian art. Christian art describes artistic endeavors from Carolingian manuscripts and Byzantine icons, to a French Gothic church like Chartres Cathedral, to famous paintings of the Italian Renaissance like Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. In other words, art made for Christian worship.

So if Christian art provides our model then Jewish art would mean all art made in the service of the synagogue. In actuality, what we think of as Jewish art encompasses a wide variety of subjects, including secular images, while Christian art is identified primarily by religious iconography. That is to say, comparing Judaism and Christianity can be slippery because of the Jewish people’s peculiar position as a religion and a culture.

What does Jewish art tell us about Jewish history?

Like art as a whole, Jewish art tells us about the past as well as the present. By examining why a work of art was made we can learn about religious practice or politics or sociological issues associated with a particular time and place. For example, by looking at a painting of Queen Esther done in the 1960s by a Jewish American female artist, we might learn about the Jewish position in the feminist movement. Understanding the artist’s attraction to the subject of Esther and her approach to it, or the patron’s motives and ideas, if there was a commission, as well as the public’s reaction to the canvas, reveals more about Jewish motivations to create than a mere retelling of the Bible story.

Are there particular challenges facing students of Jewish art?

In the United States, as opposed to Israel, the biggest challenge is finding a mentor and then an institution that offers a wide variety of classes in this subject. Jewish Studies programs might have one faculty appointment in Jewish culture, as opposed to multiple historians, and that slot might be in music, not even art. An art historian specializing in Jewish art would most likely be placed in an art history department and maybe teach one Jewish art class a year—designated as a specialized interest—while more frequently teaching basic classes like an art history survey spanning the Renaissance period to the present or 20th-century art.

How did you find yourself attracted to this field?

As an art history graduate student I discovered that, comparatively speaking, there was little scholarship on Jewish art and I recognized that lacuna as a great opportunity to make a contribution to both art history and Jewish Studies, one of the newer disciplines in the academy. As a Jew, there is a personal component, too, that compels me to study, teach, and write about a history and culture that is dear to me.

What do you see as the future of the field?

There are still many Jewish artists that need to be discovered. Also numerous well-known artists, who explored their Jewish identity but are better known for their non-Jewish work, require further attention. For instance, some of the greatest American photographers are of Jewish descent but how that background played out in their work has either not been explored, or only briefly discussed. I am thinking, for instance, of Diane Arbus, Alfred Stieglitz, Richard Avedon, Weegee, Robert Frank, Irving Penn, and Arnold Newman, to name only some!

If someone wanted to know more about where Jewish Studies and art history are going, what would you recommend she read, or see?

Gabrielle Sed-Rajna’s Jewish Art is comprehensive but expensive. My Grandparents, My Parents and I: Jewish Art and Culture, a slimmer volume by Edward Van Voolen, has good plates and discusses some major accomplishments, especially from the modern era. I am currently working on a coauthored project, with Larry Silver of the University of Pennsylvania, titled Modern/Jewish/Artists (forthcoming in 2011). It will provide a cultural setting for the artistic output of the Jews from the 19th century to the present in both an introductory and critical manner.

Posted on July 2, 2009

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