Social Con­cern and Left Pol­i­tics in Jew­ish Amer­i­can Art, 1880 – 1940

  • Review
By – May 4, 2015

Begin­ning in the 1880s, rad­i­cal caus­es increas­ing­ly attract­ed Jew­ish activists and thinkers, cre­at­ing a sub­stan­tial Jew­ish-Amer­i­can world of writ­ers and artists. Most of the artists that author Matthew Baigell high­lights emerged from this forty-year flood of immi­grants into the Unit­ed States at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. The final 25-page chap­ter includes artists born in the 1950s as well as crit­ics’ obser­va­tions that appeared in 1999.

A con­tin­u­ous trove of sources — news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, tracts, fly­ers, and post­cards, near­ly all in Yid­dish — form a large por­tion of his mate­r­i­al. Lend­ing them­selves well to black-and-white repro­duc­tion dat­ing from 1894, the book’s six­ty-one illus­tra­tions accom­pa­ny the rel­e­vant text. Many of these include social­ist illus­tra­tions, often exem­plars of Art Deco. The glos­sary, how­ev­er, is scant for read­ers not flu­ent in Yid­dish. The artists’ biogra­phies pre­dictably indi­cate their pre­pon­der­ant emi­gra­tion from Rus­sia and Poland, feed­ing our history’s great pop­u­la­tion surge.

The author com­ments that the Par­ty, which lacked a clear and con­sis­tent posi­tion,” often issued overt­ly hos­tile” arti­cles in its press. Baigell fur­ther writes that the con­sen­sus con­cern­ing this group of artists was that they were anti-Judaist, not anti-Semit­ic, thus endeav­or­ing to unrav­el the ties of the Jew­ish Com­mu­nists from accu­sa­tions of anti-Semi­tism. Of neces­si­ty, the text nav­i­gates between the var­i­ous bureaus and coun­cils set up by the Par­ty in its desire to have Jew­ish John Reed” clubs and committees. 

Wend­ing his way through pre-1940s Amer­i­can art, Beigell skew­ers, in his con­clud­ing chap­ter, the art crit­i­cism pub­lished by Harold Rosen­berg and Clement Green­berg — both of whom expressed, in author Beigell’s words, the view­point that Jew­ish art did not exist,” but there was nev­er­the­less a Jew­ish point of view.” Fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion by the read­er would clar­i­fy how these two opin­ions, undat­ed, fit into the era of the book’s title. 

This volume’s inter­est­ing analy­sis, aid­ed great­ly by the illus­tra­tions and the loqua­cious and con­trast­ing state­ments of the artists and crit­ics, points sharply to shift­ing world­views under the impact of mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can life. 

Relat­ed Content:

Read Matthew Baigel­l’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Posts

Social Con­cern and Left Pol­i­tics in Jew­ish Amer­i­can Art

Prej­u­dice Porn: Images of Jews in Amer­i­can Art, 1880 – 1940

We’re Liv­ing in a Gold­en Age of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Art & Don’t Real­ly Know It

Arlene B. Soifer earned degrees in Eng­lish, and has had many years of expe­ri­ence as a free­lance writer, edi­tor, and pub­lic rela­tions professional.

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