Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 26, 2000
Catherine Soussloff, ed. Jewish Identity in Modern Art History Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 239 pp.; 36 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0520213033)

The goal of this volume, as Catherine Soussloff indicates in her introduction, is to introduce the subject of Jewish identity to art history and to explore its complexites. Compared to The Jew in the Text (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995), edited by Linda Nochlin and Tamar Garb, which examines Jewish identity through depictions of Jews in art and literature, this anthology has a greater scope, although fewer essays. The contributions cover issues ranging from the concept of Jewish art, aniconism, and anti-Semitism to the importance of Jewish identity to numerous artists, collectors, and art historians. While there are several themes in this volume, Soussloff is equally interested in outlining the great variety of material surrounding the notion of Jewish identity in art history and indicating its theoretical importance. The essays not only explore Jewish issues, but also address more general methodological and interdisciplinary concerns, specifically the importance of alterity and identity formation in understanding the past. As such, the essays move between two critical contexts: Jewish studies, with its understanding of the relation of Jew, as outsider or Other, to society at large (as explored in the work of Sander Gilman, George Mosse, and others); and postmodernism (for lack of a better name), which emphasizes the subjectivity of the author or artist as much as the actual content of his or her work. This emphasis is evident in the structure of the book, which is organized thematically in three parts: “Theories, Laws, and Disciplines,” “Artists and Collectors,” and “Art Historians and Critics.”

The first section, “Theories, Laws, and Disciplines,” examines the notion of Jewish art and the relation of Judaism to the arts. The book begins on a high note with two insightful essays that explore the concept “Jewish art” from different perspectives. Margaret Olin’s study of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art-historical texts reveals the underlying nationalist (and consequently anti-Semitic) structure of art history that made possible the notion of “Jewish art.” Olin argues that the latter was routinely considered a counterexample to true art, and that the Jews could easily be considered a people against art. Jewish aniconism, as Kalman Bland argues in the next essay, is a two-edged sword: it could be praised in terms of an ascetic emphasis on ethical, spiritual, and universal values in contrast to paganism and a culture of the body; or it could be condemned as the antiart stance of a people for whom there can be no indigenous art, since they are imbued with egoism, carnality, and parochialism. In the final essay in this section, Lisa Saltzman describes a type of postwar Jewish iconoclasm in the work and writing of Theodor Adorno, Laura Mulvey, Paul Celan, and Anselm Kiefer. The origin of this stance, Saltzman believes, is Adorno’s dictum, “After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric,” which, she argues, derives from the Second Commandment’s prohibition of images. In the postwar era images continue to be made, but in a context that decries “the danger represented by [their] continued existence” (79).

The second part of the anthology, “Artists and Collectors,” includes three case studies relating to Jewish identity in the art world. Larry Silver examines the social context in which the painter Maurycy Gottlieb constructed a hybrid identity, that of the Jewish history painter. Robin Reisenfeld argues that several German Jews collected German Expressionist art at first (1900-20) for purposes of assimilation into German society, and then (1920-50) for the preservation of German culture. In the final essay in this section, Lisa Bloom examines the role of Jewish identity in feminist writing and art. She contrasts an earlier generation of artists and critics, who tended not to focus on issues of ethnic and racial difference, with the current generation.

The four essays of the final section, “Art Historians and Critics,” examine issues of Jewish identity in art-historical and critical writing. Karen Michels’ essay on the emigration of iconology outlines the role of Jewish identity in the humanist thought of Panofsky, Cassirer, and other German Jewish intellectuals before and after their emigration from Germany. In his discussion of Clement Greenberg, Louis Kaplan examines the importance of Jewish thought in the development of Greenberg’s notion of self-criticism. For Donald Kuspit, there is an underlying and unconscious Jewish component to Meyer Schapiro’s understanding of the relation of the artist to society. Finally, Charlotte Schoell-Glass’s essay brings to light Aby Warburg’s concern with anti-Semitism, which Ernst Gombrich and others omit when evaluating Warburg’s intellectual achievement.

All the essays in this volume examine identity within a social matrix. As Erik Erikson recognized in a 1956 essay, identity involves a reconciliation between the individual’s “conception of himself and his community’s recognition of him.” When it comes to Jewish identity, some of the authors in this volume treat the issue in just such a historical and sociological manner. Silver and Reisenfeld use it to good effect in their discussion of, respectively, a Jewish artist and Jewish collectors. Michels and Schoell-Glass focus on Jewish identity to show the role it played in Panofsky’s iconology and Warburg’s Kulturwissenschaft. Both authors demonstrate that the humanist stance of objectivity can be seen, in Michels’s words, as a “methodological answer to contemporary concerns” (175).

Other authors, however, adopt a more essentialist view that places ethnicity at the core of one’s identity and assumes that the Jew’s Jewishness tempers his or her vision of the world. The art historians and critics discussed (Panofsky, Greenberg, Schapiro, and Warburg) would not have denied their Judaism, but they would have claimed that their arguments can be disconnected from their ethnicity. In other words, they would have made a distinction between motives and grounds, a distinction that is not always adhered to in this volume. When Soussloff claims in her introduction that “for the most part these critics wanted to avoid the notion that their religion or ethnicity had anything to do with their criticism” (2), she is suggesting that the distinction between motives and grounds is untenable. “The subjectivity of the interpreter,” she argues, “bears upon the subsequent history of that writing” (2).

An instance of this type of reasoning is in Lisa Bloom’s discussion of Judy Chicago’s most famous work: “If The Dinner Party evokes female solidarity, that evocation is problematic, for in staging harmony, it also represses awareness of Jewish ethnicity” (147). There is a fallacy in arguing from the proposition that so-and-so does not mention or omits something to the conclusion that so-and-so represses (or denies) this something. The first proposition is a statement of fact, while the second comes close to a moral claim. Donald Kuspit argues persuasively that for Meyer Schapiro the social position of the artist, whether Romanesque sculptor or Impressionist painter, is like that of the Jew in that it is “heterodox in an orthodox world of conformity” (206). But it does not necessarily follow that “[f]or Schapiro, all authentically creative art—which is not every art—is subliminally Jewish, not in a doctrinaire sense but in attitude” (204). In his “subversive” treatment of Clement Greenberg, Louis Kaplan attempts to locate the origin of the notion of self-criticism, not in Kantian idealism, but in Greenberg’s analysis of the role of self-criticism in Jewish thought. One cannot deny that Greenberg was, as Kaplan puts it, a “postwar American Jew trying to come to terms with modern art” (195), but in describing Greenberg in this way, Kaplan begs the question of the importance of Greenberg’s Jewish identity. Like Kuspit’s, Bloom’s, and Soussloff’s, Kaplan’s argument is only feasible if we assume that Jewishness is the determining factor in the Jew’s experience of the world.

Jewish Identity in Modern Art History, with its many well-researched and insightful essays, makes an important contribution to art history. As a whole, the book forces the reader to consider not only the role of Jewish identity in the formation of the discipline, but also the very usefulness of this category. Earlier Jewish art historians tended not to focus on such topics, because they believed in a humanism that stressed commonality. This commonality, as many of the essays in this anthology point out, tended to leave out the disempowered. This volume tries to make up for this deficiency through focusing more on difference than on commonality.

Mitchell B. Frank
independent scholar.