American Jewish Artists
To the Editor:
William Schack’s article on “Art Worth Celebrating,” which appeared in your October issue, was both perceptive and stimulating.
I was executive director of the national Tercentenary committee which sponsored the Contemporary Fine Arts Exhibit about which Mr. Schack wrote. I have seen very nearly all the press comment on the exhibit, in New York and the other cities where it was shown. No one else succeeded, as Mr. Schack did, in pointing up the two facts with which we had to wrestle: first, that with the possible exception of the synagogue there is no “American Jewish art,” there are only American Jewish artists; and second, that during a Tercentenary celebration it was important to show that these artists were so good as to be in themselves a valuable segment of American civilization today, whatever their style and subjects.
Mr. Schack’s analysis was a real contribution to general understanding of the place of Jews in the American community, and I for one read it with much appreciation.
New York City
To the Editor:
William Schack reports his disappointment with the 1954 group show “Jewish Motifs by American Artists” at the 92nd Street “Y”, for which I was responsible. It is a critic’s privilege, nay, duty, to state his views honestly, and I bow to Mr. Schack’s unfavorable verdict as I did to the favorable Art News and Arts Digest reviews of the same show. It is hard to believe, though, that in a show including works by Samuel Adler, Max Band, Philip Evergood, Ruth Gikow, Chaim Gross, Benjamin Kopman, Louis Lozowick, Joseph Margulies, William Meyerowitz, Bernard Reder, Anton Refregier, Emanuel Romano, Isaac and Moses Soyer, Nahum Tschacbasov, Abraham Walkowitz, Max Weber, and other well-known artists, not more than a half dozen items of “outstanding merit” could be found. If Mr. Schack, who called the official Fine Arts Exhibit of the American Jewish Tercentenary a “collection of masterpieces by comparison,” reviewed the lists of participants in both exhibits, he must have noted in how many cases they were the same. Could these artists have sent masterpieces to one show, and to the other work that only rose “above mere competence”? . . .
Nor could he have ignored the fact that the “Y” show, less than half the size of the Riverside show, included a number of outstanding artists who were notably missing from the latter—such as Leonard Baskin, or the very Ben-Zion whom Schack commends in his article, and ten of those mentioned above.
The “Y” show did not aim at complete coverage of the scene—as its title announced. But it did demonstrate the extent of contemporary interest in the Jewish theme (and if the Tercentenary’s larger assembly of “pure” Jewish participants turned up only 20 per cent of work even “nominally” Jewish, why should we be assailed for finding so little among non-Jewish artists? In any event, the four Gentiles who showed with forty-three Jews displayed very satisfactory works).
Perhaps Mr. Schack, perceptive as he is, was insidiously influenced by the contrast in settings—the 92nd Street “Y” is no Whitney, not even a Riverside Museum, and has neither the walls nor the lighting to provide the atmosphere that works of art seem to require in an age of glamorized window dressing. In the light of his over-all reaction to the two shows, it is interesting to note that Mr. Schack singled out one-eighth of the “Y” show, and only one-twenty-seventh of the Tercentenary’s as “products of a higher emotional and aesthetical level.”
I agree in general with the tenor of Mr. Schack’s article. I, too, think that mere Jewish birth is rather unimportant from an artistic viewpoint. Why, then, does he include as Jews in his list individuals who are not known as Jews to their colleagues and contemporaries—Joseph Stella, Walt Kuhn, Jonas Lie, Eugene Speicher, Alexander Brook, and Adolph Dehn? There is no room for such racial nonsense!
New York, N. Y.
To the Editor:
The one factual misstatement in William Schack’s article is not, perhaps, an error in the context of the essay. Mr. Schack lists Walt Kuhn among the Jewish American painters; actually Kuhn was an American of German Protestant extraction. However, among the many Jewish-born artists whom the author tosses into one huge salad are Catholics, agnostics, militant Communists, atheists, mystics (of the Gobi rather than Gaza desert variety), and a very few believers in Judaism. Any Protestant would be at home in such a heterogeneity. . . .
Thomas B. Hess
Managing Editor, Art News
New York City
Mr. Schack writes:
Having a high regard for both the 92nd Street “Y” and Alfred Werner, I made my adverse judgment on their exhibition with extreme reluctance.
Dr. Werner asks whether the same artists can be represented at simultaneous exhibitions by works of greatly unequal quality. The answer is obviously yes, since only a few geniuses have been able to produce continuously works of uniform excellence. But his question doesn’t have much relevance since the artists whose works I considered outstanding in his show were also well represented in the “Contemporary.”
More than that, many—perhaps most—of the artists in the “Y” exhibition were not represented by their best work because they (and Dr. Werner) were limited by the Jewish theme. Their best work is not Jewish in either content or spirit: e.g., Gross (represented by a water color, not a sculpture), Lozowick, the two Soyers, Kopman—and Evergood among the non-Jews. Hence the weakness of the “Y” show was due less to anyone’s faulty selection than to its inherent possibilities. . . . Waiving such limits, the “Contemporary” had a greater choice among the artists’ best work. Dr. Werner’s argument, therefore, only reinforces the thesis of my article—that there is very little Jewishness in the art of American Jewish artists,
I pass over his insinuation that I cannot judge art except under elegant exhibition conditions; and it certainly would be “interesting to note” how he computed his percentages of “products of a higher emotional, and aesthetic, level,” but I won’t go into it.
I did not “assail” Dr. Werner for failing to find more paintings on Jewish themes by non-Jewish artists—I merely noted the quantitatively meager results. When he says in defense that the Contemporary” had such a small percentage of works with Jewish content, he is again unwittingly bolstering my thesis.
I am not sure that I understand Dr. Werner’s final paragraph. Does he mean that the artists he names in it are not in fact Jews, or that they are not Jews because some of their colleagues may not have known them as such, or that I should not have mentioned them as Jewish artists because their work has no Jewish content? If it is the last, Dr. Werner is opposing my whole thesis (with which he professes to “agree in general”)—that virtually all American Jewish artists, whether they are only nominally or quite obviously Jews, reveal next to no Jewishness in their work. Or does Dr. Werner have in mind a gerrymandered definition of “Jew” which would exclude artists (and others) who do not publicly proclaim themselves as Jews or who have not done any work on a Jewish theme?
As to the point raised by Mr. Hess: In his article on American art in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, George S. Hellman lists as a Jew Walt Kuhn and other artists I mention who are not generally known as such. If any of them later chose one or another of the creeds which Mr. Hess refers to, the fact remains that any definition of a Jew other than one of birth lands us in an exitless semantic swamp, as I try to show in my reply to Dr. Werner. Mr. Hess can have no quarrel with me, since I point out that his estranged Jews—and even frankly Jewish artists—have not given a Jewish accent to their art.
To the Editor:
William Schack’s article raises more questions than it answers: Is there anything specifically Jewish in their [Jewish artists'] work? “. . . are there American Jewish characteristics at all? Can they be reflected in canvas and carving?” etc. . . .
Perhaps some of the answers, at least hints, lie in the historic and religious influences that left their imprint on the Jewish people when they were culturally isolated. . . .
—Jews, for one thing, are newcomers to the plastic arts: the Biblical prohibition against the making of a “graven image” saw to that. . . . Thus the Jewish artist had to make a psychological break with his religion, perhaps not always conscious. He had to become an iconoclast whereas his Gentile counterpart started as iconographer. Does this furnish any clue as to why the more revolutionary forms of modern art have such an appeal for Jewish artists?
—Then the duality of Jewish existence. . . . How did the blending and interaction of the two influences, the one from the insulated ghetto, the other, increasing one, from the “outside” world, affect the individual in the arts? What are the results and dangers, if any, of such a schizophrenic situation? . . .
—The “Messianic complex” has been the glory and the plague of the Jewish people. . . . It endowed Jewish artists with burning idealism, zeal, mysticism, interest in social reform, single-mindedness, desire to point the way.
—Learning and sharpness of mind were always highly valued. . . . Therefore a tendency to intellectualize and philosophize. . . .
These factors . . . were all to some extent common to Jewish artists of various lands. Does this aggregate comprise the common denominator and supply the overtones which account for the distinctly “Jewish flavor” in the work of Jewish artists no matter what their lands of origin, and regardless whether their specific themes are Jewish? In this context Bloom’s “Synagogue,” Shahn’s “Sacco and Vanzetti,” Levine’s “Feast of Pure Reasons,” Soutine’s “Choir Boy,” Lipchitz’s and Gabo’s abstract sculptures, and even Modigliani’s nudes begin to show something in common.
One final incidental question. Why, if we Jews are proud of our large representation in the arts, do we, when an “outsider” like the French critic Jean Bouret comments on the contemporary American paintings exhibited in Paris as having “characteristics . . . typically Jewish”—why, I say, do we then cry: Anti-Semitism?
New York City