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.jpgJosh 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.