Matthew Baigell is Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus in the Depart­ment of Art His­to­ry at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author of numer­ous books, includ­ing Amer­i­can Artists, Jew­ish Images, and Jew­ish Art in Amer­i­ca: An Intro­duc­tion. His most recent book is Social Con­cern and Left Pol­i­tics in Jew­ish Amer­i­ca Art, 1880 – 1940. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Before any­thing else, I want to say that I nev­er use the phrase Jew­ish artist” but rather artists who are Jew­ish, because plac­ing the word Jew­ish” before artist” implies that an artist’s entire iden­ti­ty is tied up with being Jew­ish. It is the same thing as say­ing an obese per­son” rather than a per­son who is obese.” And I also believe that there is no such thing as Jew­ish art, but rather art with Jew­ish con­tent. Unless some­body can find the bio­log­i­cal and cul­tur­al roots con­nect­ing cen­turies’ of diver­gent Jew­ish cul­tures (Ashke­naz­ic, Sephardic, North African, Mid­dle East­ern, Indi­an) as well as between male and female, rich and poor, reli­gious and non-reli­gious, and rur­al and urban artists who were/​are Jews. Most peo­ple think of Jew­ish art” as some­thing by artists like Marc Cha­gall, but he and oth­ers like him came from a par­tic­u­lar area (East­ern Europe) at a par­tic­u­lar time in his­to­ry (late nine­teenth- and ear­ly twentieth-centuries). 

Hav­ing said that, I was always inter­est­ed in Jew­ish-themed art based on ancient and mod­ern texts (Torah, Tal­mud, kab­bal­ah, dai­ly and high hol­i­day prayer books). My inter­est took a very seri­ous turn when invit­ed in the ear­ly 1990s to write an essay for an exhi­bi­tion, Paint­ing a Place in Amer­i­ca: Jew­ish Artists in New York, 1900 – 1945,” for New York’s Jew­ish Muse­um. I real­ized that although many were known as main­stream Amer­i­can artists, the impor­tance of their Jew­ish back­grounds had been neglect­ed. Most came from East­ern Europe where their reli­gious and cul­tur­al her­itage as well as their sense of com­mu­ni­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty played a sig­nif­i­cant role in their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. What was the impact of that iden­ti­ty on their art? Here was an area sore­ly in need of fur­ther research. And since the 1990s, explor­ing the rel­e­vance of that back­ground has been the dri­ving force of my work.

Most recent­ly, I wrote Social Con­cern and Left Pol­i­tics in Jew­ish Amer­i­can Art, 1880 – 1940, to make two key points. First, many, if not all, artists who were Jew­ish turned to polit­i­cal themes not because they were inno­cents seduced by fig­ures such as Marx or Lenin, but because their Jew­ish her­itage, prompt­ed by notions of tak­ing care of the poor, the needy, the hun­gry, and so on, blend­ed well with left-wing ideals of pro­vid­ing those in need with bet­ter liv­ing and work­ing con­di­tions. For these artists, as had been artic­u­lat­ed by many his­to­ri­ans and soci­ol­o­gists, social­ism was a sec­u­lar form of Judaism. At the grass­roots lev­el today, there must be hun­dreds of Amer­i­can syn­a­gogues sup­port­ing pro­grams that pro­vide food, cloth­ing, and finan­cial sup­port for those in need. The idea is the same even if the pol­i­tics have changed.

The sec­ond point of the book was to show that the polit­i­cal con­cerns of the artists did not emerge dur­ing the Depres­sion or the grow­ing Com­mu­nist pres­ence in Amer­i­ca dur­ing the 1930s, but had appeared as ear­ly as the 1880s at the start of the Great Migra­tion of Jews from East­ern Europe. Con­cern and agi­ta­tion for rais­ing stan­dards of liv­ing exist­ed decades before the 1930s.

Two exam­ples, the first from 1912 and the oth­er from 1935 will illus­trate these points. The ear­li­er one, a car­toon, pub­lished in the Decem­ber 12, 1912 issue of The Groyser Kun­des (The Big Stick), shows how a polit­i­cal state­ment was pre­sent­ed with­in a Jew­ish cul­tur­al frame­work of social respon­si­bil­i­ty and human bet­ter­ment. A tai­lor lights a meno­rah, each can­dle stem labeled with a polit­i­cal activ­i­ty. The cap­tion at the top is the begin­ning of the prayer said on Hanukkah on each of the eight days when can­dles are lit. These are the can­dles that we light.” The tai­lor, his tape mea­sure around his neck and the words for tai­lor” writ­ten on his shoul­der, holds the can­dle that lights all of the oth­ers. On it, the car­toon­ist, wrote Enlight­ened.” Read­ing from right to left, the fol­low­ing words appear on each can­dle hold­er: agi­ta­tion,” orga­ni­za­tion,” strong union,” “ gen­er­al strike,” high­er wages,” short­er works hours,” and bet­ter life.” The cap­tion at the bot­tom states: When the tai­lor lights the meno­rah, then all will be illu­mi­nat­ed. Then there will be more joy and hap­pi­ness in New York.” 

The sec­ond work, a paint­ing by Sel­ma Free­man, titled Strike Talk,” paint­ed twen­ty-odd years lat­er, shows women gar­ment work­ers tak­ing con­trol of their future by call­ing for a strike as a means to improve degrad­ing sweat­shop con­di­tions. The piece of paper in the fore­ground states: All out by noon,” indi­cates the nature of the con­ver­sa­tion among the women. The men in the back­ground seem clueless. 

It is works such as these that are an impor­tant part of Amer­i­can and Jew­ish-Amer­i­can cul­tur­al his­to­ry as well as Amer­i­can and Jew­ish-Amer­i­can art his­to­ry and need to be remem­bered for what they tell us of the Jew­ish con­cern for social betterment.

Check back lat­er this week for more posts for Matthew Baigell.

Relat­ed Content:

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.