(Jewish) Art and (Jewish) Philosophy (Harold Rosenberg)


(Yaakov Agam, Mirage from Never Before Suite, 1985)

I wasn’t expecting to find the symbiosis between art and philosophy, the appearance of Jewish philosophy in Harold Rosenberg’s 1966 essay “Is There A Jewish Art?” It works on two registers. [1] Rosenberg lists a number of possible meanings of Jewish art, none of which satisfy him. These include art made by Jews, art with Jewish “content,” ceremonial art, popular Jewish folk art, metaphysical Judaica, and an anti-art based on found objects (as discussed in an earlier post about Rosenberg and Jewish art). Re: metaphysical art, the nods here are to Ben Shahn and Yaakov Agam. The line that interests me about so-called metaphysical Judaica is as follows. “Perhaps this is the Jewish art of the future,. Perhaps a genuine Jewish style will come out of Jewish philosophy” (p.59).  Rosenberg had his doubts and so should we. But the possibility is left open. I’m struck by the way in which philosophical categories and figures factor into the exploration by which an important art critic came to this question in the 1960s. For Rosenberg, it came down to Jewish self-expression, to the event of self-making on canvas that he saw in Abstract Expressionism. This emphasis on identity and self-identity have long since been deconstructed in more contemporary critical theory.

But looking back, I think it’s a little remarkable how much this discussion is conceived of on American grounds. The reality of Jewish art, that mysterious something that eludes an definite determination, is bound up with “identity,” in particular with the American immigrant stories of other American ethnic groups, Jews, Dutchmen, Armenians, Italians, Greeks, to which we could add African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, gays and lesbian, and, of course, women. For Jews, this would mean “a new art by Jews which, though not a Jewish art, is a profound Jewish expression,” whatever that might mean.

(This question comes up in the companion piece where Rosenberg asked, not about the existence of Jewish art, but rather about something more basic. “Does the Jew Exist?” The essay is a response to Sartre and his book Anti-Semite and Jew, and here we see Rosenberg appeal to the clan cohesion of Jewish existence, a “democratic participation” in a shared past. Again, it’s not that much of this armature regarding a unique Jewish identity has been deconstructed. But this too isn’t clear. The Jew exists but there are no Jewish traits,” which means that Jew exists without determinate qualities (18)

I’d note again how America defines Rosenberg’s understanding of Jewish existence (“Does the Jew Exist?”) no less than his understanding of Jewish art (“Is There a Jewish Art?”). In both cases, these two questions were bound up for Rosenberg with history and philosophy. In Europe, “the Jew” is identified by Sartre as per Rosenberg as the prisoner of a concentration camp. In America, the figure is free from the friend/enemy distinction; in America, things are different, because in American Jews are not the only foreigner, which means that “being singled out by an enemy is not the cause of our difference from others, is not what makes us Jews.” For Rosenberg, Jewishness is an “it” that Jewish people must “rediscover…within themselves” (p.18).

I’m pretty sure Rosenberg is wrong to reify Jewishness, but what if he’s right, at least a little bit in part, and what would it mean to think about Judaism and Jewish identity as something, as opposed to nothing? Perhaps these “things” are not metaphysical, but are, indeed, a little schematic and a little object-like, while at the same time, insisting on a more basic freedom.

As for what constitutes “Jewish art,” I think today we would be more comfortable than was Rosenberg with that ad hoc melange of Jews, content, ceremonial bric-a-brac, folk art, thrown in with a  little “metaphysical Judaica.” That’s postmodernism, which lends a certain clarity to our subject in ways that the tradition of High Modernism could not do.

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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