Home > History, History of Religion and Culture, Judaism, Study of Judaism > The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual

The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual

  • Author(s): Kalman P. Bland
  • Publisher: P~ Un~ Pr~ (2000)
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 249
  • ISBN-10: 0691010439
  • ISBN-13: 9780691010434
  • Format: PDF

Conventional wisdom holds that Judaism is indifferent or even suspiciously hostile to the visual arts due to the Second Commandment’s prohibition on creating “graven images,” the dictates of monotheism, and historical happenstance. This intellectual history of medieval and modern Jewish attitudes toward art and representation overturns the modern assumption of Jewish iconophobia that denies to Jewish culture a visual dimension.

Kalman Bland synthesizes evidence from medieval Jewish philosophy, mysticism, poetry, biblical commentaries, travelogues, and law, concluding that premodern Jewish intellectuals held a positive, liberal understanding of the Second Commandment and did, in fact, articulate a certain Jewish aesthetic. He draws on this insight to consider modern ideas of Jewish art, revealing how they are inextricably linked to diverse notions about modern Jewish identity that are themselves entwined with arguments over Zionism, integration, and anti-Semitism.

Through its use of the past to illuminate the present and its analysis of how the present informs our readings of the past, this book establishes a new assessment of Jewish aesthetic theory rooted in historical analysis. Authoritative and original in its identification of authentic Jewish traditions of painting, sculpture, and architecture, this volume will ripple the waters of several disciplines, including Jewish studies, art history, medieval and modern history, and philosophy.

THE ARTLESS JEW studies an idea. It investigates the social origins, intellectual moorings, and cultural implications of Jewish aniconism. Aniconism refers to the ambiguous “historiographic myth that certain cultures, usually monotheistic or primitively pure cultures, have no images at all, or no figurative imagery, or no images of the deity.” Jewish aniconism implies that Jews are a People of the Book rather than a People of the Image. Proponents of Jewish aniconism deny the existence of authentic Jewish traditions in painting, sculpture, and architecture. They concede that Jews imitate, in production and reception, the foreign art of their host or neighboring cultures. They claim that Jewish attitudes toward visuality and the visual arts range from indifference to suspicion and hostility.

The grand themes of Jewish aniconism are sounded by innumerable cultural historians who insist that “the Second Commandment and many other restrictions in the Bible undoubtedly had a negative impact on the artistic development of the Jewish people, and subsequently of Christianity and Islam.” Similar strains reverberate whenever Jewish artists complain that “monotheism was dearly bought—and because of that Judaism had to give up observation of nature with our eyes, and not just with our soul. On religious grounds, Judaism struggled with ancient idolatry, whose remnants are displayed today in all museums of the world, so that [Judaism] remained with no share in the treasures of graphic art.” Jewish aniconism echoes whenever scholars declare that “the visual arts never played a central role in the religiously dominated premodern Jewish culture.” Almost ubiquitous, the denial is at work when biographers assume that Eastern European Jews seeking to become artists were compelled to “defy the traditional taboo against iconic images.” The themes of Jewish aniconism are embellished whenever philosophers and critics propose that “cultures vary greatly in their exploitation of the various senses and in the way in which they relate their conceptual apparatus to the various senses. . . . The Hebrews tended to think of understanding as a kind of hearing, whereas the Greeks thought of it more as a kind of seeing.” Belonging to conventional wisdom, the credibility of Jewish aniconism is reinforced whenever experts in diverse fields declare that “there is an inherent lack of visual talent amongst Jews.”

To ascertain the scientific validity of these assertions, to prove Jewish aniconism factually true or false, one would have to consult a battery of empirically minded specialists: cognitive psychologists working in laboratories equipped to measure visual acuity; clinical psychologists and cultural anthropologists willing to tackle the mysteries of artistic creation; historians of philosophy; and historians of art probing the network of symbiotic relationships that link artists, patrons, and collectors with theories of art and artifacts.

Regardless of the empirical findings, several intriguing questions would remain unanswered. Ideas and theories, like all human artifacts, connote their makers. Because human activity is overdetermined, ideas and theories are overdetermined. They “have more reasons for existing than they need.”8 Regarding the denial of Jewish art, what might some of those reasons be? Political campaigns, wishful thinking, and controversies in the history of science warn us of immense gaps between the validity of aproposition and its public acceptance. Is the gap between truth and popularity a clue to understanding the attractions of Jewish aniconism?

What was the environment that allowed Jewish aniconismto germinate, reproduce, edge out its competitors, and become conventional wisdom? What groups of people found it compelling or incredible?What were their educational backgrounds, political loyalties, national identities, and religious affiliations? Denying or affirming Jewish art, did they mean to praise or condemn Judaism?What motivates contemporary discussions of Jewish aesthetics? What motivated premodern discussions? How do the premodern and modern discussions compare? Have Jewish and Gentile perceptions of Jewish visuality and Jewish art been immune to historical change? Have they missed their appointment with the opticians of culture? Have they escaped refraction by the iconoclastic Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century; the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century; the American, French, and Russian Revolutions of 1776, 1789, and 1917; the recent emancipation and westernization of the Jews; the rise of political and racial anti-Semitism; the birth of Jewish nationalism; and the bewildering array of modernist, avant-garde, and postmodern developments in all the arts and aesthetic theory? These are the questions to which The Artless Jew provides partial answers.

The Artless Jew is chronologically partial. It focuses on medieval and modern developments. Reference is made to the earlier traditions of Israelite culture and Late Antique rabbinic Judaismonly insofar as they were received and interpreted by later authorities. The Artless Jew is also partial in combining my professional training and love for medieval Jewish thought with my amateur’s delight in the musical and visual arts.

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