Cov­er image for Jew­ish Art in Amer­i­ca designed by Archie Rand

Matthew Baigell is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in the Depart­ment of Art His­to­ry at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty. His newest book, The Implaca­ble Urge to Defame: Car­toon Jews in the Amer­i­can Press, 1877 – 1935, was pub­lished by Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press in April. He will be guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

As an art his­to­ri­an spe­cial­iz­ing in Amer­i­can art, I had won­dered why con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish art had been neglect­ed in the main­stream press. True, there are famous artists who are Jew­ish but they do not explore Jew­ish sub­ject mat­ter. True, one can find demean­ing, cheap-shot humor direct­ed at Jew­ish sub­jects. But by Jew­ish art, I mean sub­ject mat­ter based on reli­gious, his­tor­i­cal, and pos­i­tive cul­tur­al sources. By com­par­i­son, sev­er­al Latino/​a and African Amer­i­can artists, among oth­er minori­ties, have, over the last few decades, explored their her­itages and have exhib­it­ed their works.

What is one to say? An excuse I have heard many times is that too few peo­ple are inter­est­ed in such works. But this is Catch-22 log­ic. Peo­ple are not inter­est­ed because such art is not shown and such art is not shown because peo­ple are not inter­est­ed. I won­der, then, if Jew­ish art his­to­ri­ans, crit­ics, and gal­lerists must still be embar­rassed by their reli­gion, shy away from it, do not want to be iden­ti­fied with it, and want to be iden­ti­fied as main­stream in their tastes. What ever the rea­sons, artists who explore Jew­ish sub­ject mat­ter exhib­it less and are not as well known as artists belong­ing to oth­er minor­i­ty groups. This is not just a ques­tion of tal­ent. In my own expe­ri­ence, although the sit­u­a­tion is improv­ing, I have been direct­ed to Jew­ish and Jew­ish-friend­ly rather than main­stream pub­li­ca­tions when sub­mit­ting or sug­gest­ing arti­cles or books on con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish sub­jects or artists. We are still in a ghetto.

I decid­ed at some point in my career (I am now a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus, hav­ing retired about fif­teen years ago) to help bring Jew­ish con­tent to pub­lic atten­tion and to make a con­tri­bu­tion, how­ev­er small, to the his­to­ry of Jew­ish art in Amer­i­ca. My moment came when Nor­man Klee­blatt, the recent­ly retired cura­tor at the Jew­ish Muse­um, asked me to con­tribute an essay on artists who stud­ied at the Edu­ca­tion­al Alliance in New York’s Low­er East Side for the cat­a­logue of his exhi­bi­tion in 1991, Paint­ing a Place in Amer­i­ca: Jew­ish Artists in New York 1900 – 1945. Sev­er­al artists were well known — Max Weber, Ben Shahn, Mar­lk Rothko, Louise Nevel­son — but I soon real­ized that very lit­tle had been writ­ten about the artists from a Jew­ish, rather than main­stream Amer­i­can point of view. I turned in a six­ty-page essay that I had to cut in half. But I found my sub­ject, and not just because it is always a great plea­sure for a per­son engaged in research to come on mate­r­i­al where there are very few thumb prints of oth­er schol­ars. . The artists had a Jew­ish life and sev­er­al of their works could be more ful­ly under­stood only in a reli­gious, his­tor­i­cal, or cul­tur­al­ly Jew­ish con­text. To be sure, I had a lot to learn about life in east­ern Europe and in the Low­er East Side around the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry as well as about tra­di­tion­al Ortho­dox prac­tices, but gain­ing such knowl­edge became a way to learn more about who my fore­bears were and some­thing of their world view as well as my own con­nec­tions to Judaism which over the years have grown increas­ing­ly deep­er and pro­found­ly satisfying.

After sub­mit­ting my arti­cle for the exhi­bi­tion, my future schol­ar­ly course was set. I began to teach a course in Jew­ish art and began to write arti­cles and books most­ly about reli­gious con­tent in Jew­ish Amer­i­can art. (I was not am still not inter­est­ed in artists who are Jew­ish and paint, say, only land­scapes or gera­ni­um plants.) So far, that includes six books, two co-edit­ed antholo­gies and many arti­cles. One is on Holo­caust sub­ject mat­ter by Jew­ish Amer­i­can artists who were quite shy of con­fronting the mate­r­i­al until the 1960s. Anoth­er is about Holo­caust imagery by Euro­pean Jew­ish artists who passed the war years in this country.

When research­ing mate­r­i­al for a sur­vey of Jew­ish art in Amer­i­ca (Jew­ish Art in Amer­i­ca: An Intro­duc­tion, 2007), anoth­er one of those a‑ha’ moments occurred. I real­ized that toward the end of the 1970s and ever since, we have been liv­ing in a gold­en age of Jew­ish Amer­i­can art. Artists all over the coun­try had begun to turn to bib­li­cal themes, espe­cial­ly Jew­ish fem­i­nist artists, who chal­lenged tra­di­tion­al inter­pre­ta­tions through their art. Per­haps more artists than in any pre­vi­ous Amer­i­can gen­er­a­tion were cre­at­ing Jew­ish-themed works and there­fore adding live­ly and impor­tant chap­ters to the his­to­ry of Jew­ish art in this coun­try. Inter­view­ing dozens and befriend­ing sev­er­al of these artists has been one of the great joys in my pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al life, and bring­ing their work to pub­lic atten­tion remains an abid­ing con­cern. I don’t want to say an abid­ing mis­sion because that sounds too inflat­ed, but I feel that it gives my work some purpose.

Check back on Thurs­day to read more from Matthew Baigell. 

Matthew Baigell is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in the depart­ment of art his­to­ry at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author, edi­tor, and coed­i­tor of over twen­ty books on Amer­i­can and Jew­ish Amer­i­can art. His most recent book is The Implaca­ble Urge to Defame: Car­toon Jews in the Amer­i­can Press, 1877 – 1935.