Objects & Bodies (Jewish Art) (Harold Rosenberg) (Idolatry)


More than the rabbis, I think, contemporary Jewish philosophy cares an awful lot about “idolatry.” I’m not sure why. Maybe what Harold Rosenberg, who actually understood something about the topic, maybe what he wanted to say was that the problem with art isn’t that it’s pagan, but that it’s not pagan enough!

“I have, however, my own fancily “modernist” theory of why the Old Testament excluded carvings and paintings. It is that in a world of miracles, the fabrications of the human hand are a distraction. In the landscape of the Old Testament, anything (a garment, a slingshot, the jawbone of an ass) or anybody (a shepherd body, a concubine) may start to glisten with meaning and become memorable. (One finds a trace of something in Whitman: instead of constructing images, he catalogues objects of the American scene, the idea being that is anything that appears in the aura of the wonderful. Thus, the Old Testament is filled with a peculiar kind of “art,” which we have begun to appreciate in this century: Joseph’s coat, Balaam’s ass, the burning bush, Aaron’s rod. If there were a Jewish museum with those items in it, would anyone miss madonnas? I am not suggesting that the ancient Hebrews were the inventors of Surrealism. But the idea that if you inhabit a sacred world, you find art, rather than make it, is clearly present in the Old Testament. When the mind of the people is loaded with magical objects and events, which unfortunately cannot be assembled physically, what is there for artist to do but make cups for ceremonial drinking and ornaments for the Torah.”

And then he writes in the next paragraph, “In our day, an anti-art tradition has been developing, within which it could be asserted that Jewish art has always existed in not existing.” After all this, why back to why no Jewish art? Alas, Rosenberg lost his nerve, leaving objects and bodies behind to return this “peculiar” Jewish art back to closed annex of a mental ghetto.

(Harold Rosenberg, “Is there A Jewish Art, Commentary, July 1966, p.59)

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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3 Responses to Objects & Bodies (Jewish Art) (Harold Rosenberg) (Idolatry)

  1. lsotera says:

    Really interesting. I never thought of the Old Testament that way. When I started reading about the destruction of the golden calf and other idols, I think I realized for the first time that destruction could be a powerful statement just like creation, and that they both could have similar value. To be seemingly anti-art, ancient Jewish culture still teaches us a lot about art and the expression of beliefs.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, Isotera. One thing I’m noting from your response is that the objects tagged by Rosenberg are not cultic per se, but more like everyday kinds of objects that one encounters or that encounter one in an ad hoc sort of way. It’s a little complicated though. Aaron’s staff is buried away, according to tradition in the ark (where it enjoys no “exhibition value”). On the other hand, there is the bronze serpent built under Moses’ direction, which was meant to catch the eye of the Israelits and avert a plague. To re-phrase a point made by Halbertal & Margalit, and also Leora Batnitzky: the problem with an “idol” is not that it’s an object, but that it’s the wrong kind of object.

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