To the Editor:
You are to be congratulated for publishing Harold Rosenberg’s provocative article, “Is There a Jewish Art?” [July].
Mr. Rosenberg may not find Jewish ceremonial objects interesting, and rightly calls attention to the fact that they are apparently of little popular appeal. This does not mean, however, that there are not some objects of major historical significance in this field. The decorative arts tradition is always slighted in times when the major arts are more prominent, and in this respect Jewish ceremonial art only shares its obscurity with all such arts. Only in a museum like The Cloisters has any major interest been focused on ceremonial art, and there is admittedly no Antioch Chalice or Bury St. Edmonds Cross extant from the Jewish past. Moreover, The Cloisters has architectural interest and some sculpture and painting (e.g., the Meroda Altarpiece) which make the trip worthwhile for those who don’t want to see metal, bone, weaving, or glass.
Mr. Rosenberg fails to mention the small group of European post-Emancipation Jews, such as Struck and Budko, who really did consider themselves “Jewish artists.” This was, of course, the result of their happy awareness that they could function in the world as Jews and artists—a new phenomenon in their time. Nevertheless, one cannot contest the observation that no “Jewish style” has ever emerged from this (and perhaps no “Jewish art” either).
When a critic of Mr. Rosenberg’s insight and stature undertakes to discuss a topic of such sensitivity, one can be certain that he will contribute some major ideas. He has done that very well, and all Jews interested in art must be grateful to him for his eloquent statement.
Tom L. Freudenheim
University Art Museum
University of California
To the Editor:
In answer to the question, “Is There a Jewish Art?” I should like to offer a suggestion that the possible seeds of a future Jewish Art may lie in early Christian Art. In the attenuated, elongated sculptures of Romanesque cathedrals and monasteries . . . there is an expression of religious feeling akin to that in Judaism—the feeling of being drawn upward, . . . away from the minutiae of daily life. . . . Early Italian frescoes of Giotto and Masaccio also come to mind, and much early work done by anonymous peasants out of simple religious faith—before church art was capitalized upon for its propaganda value.
Whether Jewish art will be purely abstract or not is a question, but that it is about to emerge, and that it will flourish both in Israel and in this country, where Jews feel free at last to express their unique heritage, is almost certain.
Thanks for Mr. Rosenberg’s article. It was most valuable in pointing out what Jewish Art is not.
To the Editor:
One may agree with Harold Rosenberg’s thesis that “there is no Jewish art in the sense of a Jewish style in painting and sculpture” but what about introducing a new term, “Yiddish art,” to encompass the thousands of paintings and sculptures which are the plastic equivalents to the literary works of Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch? Chagall is the only one in this category who achieved world fame, but hundreds of Eastern European artists of merit were so deeply engrossed in the life and lore of their habitat that they produced an art as thoroughly “Yiddish” as the customs, rites, proverbs, and songs that were their daily fare. . . . Their works can be found in the Musée Juif in Paris and—in the vaults of New York’s Jewish Museum. . . . Though these artists—most of whom were killed off by the Nazis—attended art schools in Warsaw, Vilna, Bucharest, and elsewhere, their creations often have the flavor of folk art—Jewish folk art. Yet many critics who presume to discuss “Jewish art” are not even aware of these treasures.
Other of Mr. Rosenberg’s assertions are more questionable: For example, it is not proper to view Werner Haftmann’s important work, Painting in the 20th Century, with “suspicion,” as he does, and it is absurd to accuse him of “anti-Semitism,” as—according to Rosenberg—one reviewer did. Haftmahn did, to be sure, lump together Chagall, Soutine, Pascin, Kisling, and Modigliani, but while it is not true that they “constituted a special Jewish enclave,” . . . there is nothing wrong in noting that they did have in common a “peculiarly melancholy lyricism,” which is also noted by Paolo D’Ancona in his book. . . . Haftmann writes that these artists “enlarged the magical experience of the object, adding a new lyrical and legendary dimension,” and that through it “the world was seen as dream and legend, enveloped in warm humanity and clothed in Romanticism.” If this be anti-Semitism, then every statement on Jews must be regarded with “suspicion.”
To continue—so many painters of Jewish descent have appeared in the old South that Rosenberg need not have invented a “hypothetical artist.” Why should there be a “Jewish ingredient” in the portraits painted by Carvalho, Moise, and others? To take one example—Theodore Sydney Moise of Charleston painted a portrait of Henry Clay, now in the Metropolitan Museum. For many decades the work was attributed to the more famous Samuel F. B. Morse, until it was discovered that the signature was Moise’s. If there is a “Jewish ingredient,” in the portrait, it is unnoticeable. Moise did not, of course, grow up in a shtetl, so why should he produce “Jewish” or “Yiddish” art? Rosenberg seems to contradict himself in this passage.
Again, Rosenberg’s assertion that Jewish ceremonial art is not art “in the sense in which the word is used in the 20th century” is either meaningless or mistaken. He might just as well declare that the treasures of The Cloisters are not art because they were made primarily for the church. I detect a pejorative note in Rosenberg’s reference to “the stream of carvings, silver castings, and embroideries with a Jewish iconography and biblical references”—has he looked at them carefully? He feels that these “Jewish crafts” are of so little general interest that the Jewish Museum, in order to attract visitors, was forced to put on shows of Rauschenberg, Johns, and Rivers. There can be no doubt that the work of these gentlemen is more likely to attract vast crowds than, say, an illuminated medieval manuscript. But is sensationalism the yardstick by which to measure the value of works of art? Incidentally, Mr. Rosenberg, who devotes so much space to Jewish cooking might do well to acquaint himself with the Darmstadt Haggadah or the Sarajevo Haggadah—available in facsimile editions—to raise his estimate of this “priestly art.”
Mr. Rosenberg makes only one reference to the art of Israel—actually to one Israeli artist, Agam. If we take Agam seriously—which we should—we need not question his desire to “give plastic and artistic expression to the ancient Hebrew concept of reality, which differs in its essence from that of all other civilizations.” Agam’s abstractions may very well contain little to remind Rosenberg (or me) of any special Jewish metaphysics, but Agam’s apparent failure does not exclude the possibility of another, more successful try on his part. I know several Israeli artists, both figurative and non-figurative, who earnestly believe that their art can be linked, in many ways, with ancient Hebraic concepts as well as with the living Jewish (Israeli) reality.
Altogether, Mr. Rosenberg oversimplifies. I humbly suggest that he go more deeply into the subject of “Jewish art,” should he wish to make another stab at it.
New York City
Mr. Rosenberg writes:
I was interested in Alfred Werner’s suggestion about “Yiddish art,” although his comparison of Chagall with Sholem Aleichem strikes me as highly dubious. Sholem Aleichem made his art out of the spoken language of the shtetl, while Chagall made his out of the aesthetic vocabulary of pre-World War I Paris: cubism, etc.
As for the rest of Werner’s letter, it’s mere showing off—for example, the business about Moise and the Sarajevo Haggadah. The real point of the letter is that the Jewish Museum should have invited Werner to give the lecture on Jewish art, not me. He may be right; obviously, Jewish art is his dish. But his heat prevents him from thinking. The fact that Haftmann found a “peculiarly melancholy lyricism” in painters who had nothing in common but their Jewish blood may make him O.K. with Werner, who also has the habit of looking for The Jew in Jews, but it does not defend Haftmann against the charge of distorting art history out of racial prejudice. Again, it was not I, but the Jewish Museum, who decided that New York Jews would rather see a Rauschenberg exhibition than ceremonial cups.
Werner evidently believes that he occupies a proprietary relation to Jewish art—he even feels privileged to express optimism, without giving any grounds, about future “links” between Israeli painting and “ancient Hebraic concepts.” Apparently, being a landlord is not an intellectual asset.