Art historian Darby English defines art history as “a way of actively caring for the objects of our culture.” There’s an interesting piece about him in the Sunday NYT art section. Art critic Deborah Solomon notes, “He likes to say, quoting the autocratic art critic Clement Greenberg, ‘You should never let a work of art get swallowed up in its category.’ On the other hand, Mr. English has made the work of black artists his category, or rather his official field of expertise.”
The profile about art history and African American modern art reflects something similar in Jewish Studies, and even Jewish philosophy. Jewish Studies is a way to actively care for the objects of Jewish culture, “our culture” as the universal dimension of a particular culture. What are the “objects” of Jewish Studies and of Jewish philosophy? Texts, bodies, ideas about texts and bodies, concepts and physical artifacts.
English voiced a strong objection to including in this article any work by artist Jacob Lawrence, because the artist does not speak to him. The editors at the NYT overulled the objection, as will I. “The migration gained in momentum” (1940-1941) is actually a great painting, or at least I like it a lot. English dislikes in particular more than the work itself the flat-footed and sentimental uses to which the art has been put.
The same can be said for Jewish Studies and Jewish philosophy. Neither should ever get “swallowed up” in its category even as we recognize that this happens again and again in flat-footed and sentimental ways. But I think it’s also the case that the object stands out for itself.