Judaism As Aesthetic Civilization (Mordecai Kaplan)


(Enrico Glicenstein)

It turns out that Kaplan thought at least a little bit about art in relation to Judaism, which is very interesting. There are two facets to his thinking, in general, and we see it here as well. The first facet is critical, the second constructive, although in both cases, the thought about art is actually less interesting than the more general perspectives and the particular thoughts about technology that the thought about art gives way to.

The critical facet stands out as fairly obvious. In his early journals, Kaplan is already complaining about the second commandment, and what, I think, he regards to be its comprehensive ban on images, “this stupid error by which [many generations of teachers] impoverished Jewish existence,” and the suppression of what Kaplan surmised to be a “latent genius  for the plastic arts.” This was in 1929, Kaplan reflecting on meeting the sculptor Enrico Glicenstein, an evening which he calls “the treat of my life”. The conversation with Glicenstein revolved around the self-inflicted marrano-effect alienation of Jewish artists from Judaism. “I have to be a Marrano,” Kaplan records Glicenstein as complaining, “Because the Jews do not give me a chance to work only in Jewish subject matter”  (Communings of the Spirit, vol.1, 1913-1934, p.322) (CoS). About his own inability at self-expression, Kaplan admitted, “I do not possess the ability to externalize my personality by means of song, story, poem, or painting.” This he wrote in 1931, in relation to his inability to communicate a Jewish world for his own children (CoS , p.439).

The constructive facet to Kaplan’s thinking about art rests in the realization that Judaism depends upon aesthetic creation. This he writes in 1929 as he’s starting Judaism as a Civilization. Varied aesthetic creation is, he thinks, “the only possibility of saving Judaism” here in the U.S., in Palestine, and anywhere else. If only he had the genius of a William Morris, Kaplan laments, alluding to the great English design and social theorist who founded the Arts and Craft Movement (Buber mentions Morris in one of his early essays in art at the turn of the century). The idea is to “Judaize the home” and create “new aesthetic forms of worship,” including pageant, dramatic music, pantomime, the dance and music” (CoS , p.316). As both Ken Koltun-Fromm and Mel Scult have written about, Kaplan tried his own hand at sculpture about which Kaplan writes in 1929, also in his journal. Again referring to the writing of Judaism as a Civilization, he calls “modelling” a change from the effort to “spin a Jewish Utopia out of the frailest of cobwebs” (CoS, p.357).

Kaplan’s conceptions of art and Jewish art are flat and functional. Psychologically functional, art is understood by him to “express” or to “externalize” the inner state of the artist. Sociologically functional, Jewish art is meant to bind up and make Jewish civilization possible, ceremony giving compressed abbreviated expression to social relations (CoS, p.67). The problem is that in both conceptions, Judaism is reduced to a theme or content, and art is reduced to an instrumental value. By way of contrast, more sophisticated 20th century theoretical writing about art is the assumption that art is the content of art, one way or the other. This model is basic to the high canon of modernist art advanced by Clement Greenberg at mid-century. And while Greenberg has long since fallen out of favor, what with postmodernism, he’s worth re-thinking, if only to assess in a critical light the kind of flat functionalism articulated by Kaplan. If, against Greenberg, it might in fact be possible to speak about content, and not just form, including “the spiritual in art,” if one can speak of such a thing, one still has to understand how any such content, social or spiritual, is deeply enmeshed in the formal constitution of the artwork itself. Surely, it’s the fusion of form and spiritual content that one finds in works and writings by Kandinsky, Klee, and Marc, or in works of political art by Eisenstein or Brecht, and something that, for their part, especially but no solely in relation to Hebrew Scripture and its translation, Buber and Rosenzweig understood most profoundly, and more profoundly than did Kaplan.

But what Kaplan did understand, deeply, is the importance of emotion and rhythm –the “rhythm of the cosmos” and “the rhythm of reality” and the “surprising association of ideas” with which rhythm is associated. He saw this in his favorite student Henry Rosenthal (who went off to teach philosophy at Hunter College and wrote a book on Spinoza). About Rosenthal, Kaplan writes in his diaries in 1929. He understood the need to create a dynamic style that would place Judaism at a “religious-aesthetic level,” while understanding that he himself lacked that sensibility and sensitivity (CoS, pp.267, 401). What Kaplan did seem to understand was the pattern character of art. Emotion and rhythm flesh out to constitute patterns infused by value. We see this more clearly articulated in the late work, The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, in which Kaplan compare a human life to “a work of art,” “a harmonious whole” and a “pattern of life” suffused by the psycho-cosmic values that Kaplan thought made life worthwhile (Religion of Ethical Nationhood, p.104) (REN).

Again, one might note that the aesthetic theory comes up wanting, this understanding that the artwork is supposed to constitute a harmonious whole. It runs against the grain of disfigurement that too is a mainstay of modern and postmodern aesthetic theory and practice. But again, it’s not my intention to present Kaplan in relation to the avant-garde of his or any other time (which I think and I have argued one can do with Buber and Rosenzweig in relation to what was the avant-garde of their youth and young adulthood, German Expressionsim). No, my claim about Kaplan has more to do with an aesthetic sensibility, maybe one that has less of a relation to art and to 20th century art history, but maybe a lot more aligned with the pragmatic aesthetic theory of Dewey or with Gestalt Psychology, concerned as it is and was with the constitution and cognition of larger and emergent form patterns.

Mostly for Kaplan, art was a kind of techne, whose function and purpose is human self-fashioning and human metamorphosis. In The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, Kaplan compares human self-fashioning to the work of an artist and an architect. Reflecting divinity, the human person should be “the artist or architect of [one’s] own life”  (REN, p.109). About this trite formulation, it’s worth noting things, one curious and the other important. The curious thing is that this quick nod to artists and architects comes as part of quick nod to Louis Mumford, one of the great mid-century American techno-theorists. It’s also important to note that the latter art, architecture, is, in fact, the most technological of the arts. I’m going to argue here that Kaplan understood technology better than art, or, better still, that his thought is more technological than it is aesthetic.

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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