Saman­tha Baskind is Pro­fes­sor of Art His­to­ry at Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. Her most recent book is Jew­ish Artists and the Bible in Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. She is blog­ging here this week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

For the most part I write about twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish Amer­i­can artists. For a peri­od of time I favored artists that came of age dur­ing the Great Depres­sion and so I did not have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to inter­view most of them. In 2005, while research­ing an ency­clo­pe­dia I was writ­ing, I sent the same ques­tion­naire to all of the liv­ing artists that I planned to include in the vol­ume. Among the ques­tions I asked were: What, if any­thing, do you con­sid­er Jew­ish about your art?” How, if at all, has your Jew­ish iden­ti­ty influ­enced your art?” How do you define Jew­ish art?” Does one art­work, if any, exem­pli­fy your Jew­ish­ness? If so, why?” 

Here are five par­tic­u­lar­ly intrigu­ing responses:

1. Audrey Flack, known espe­cial­ly for her intense­ly illu­sion­ist pho­to­re­al­ist paint­ings, defined Jew­ish art from her always-unique per­spec­tive: I guess Jew­ish art is specif­i­cal­ly reli­gious art like Chris­t­ian art and like Mus­lim art. It’s a catchy thing because Jews aren’t sup­posed to make images. Jew­ish art is prob­a­bly human­ist.… With Jews there’s a cel­e­bra­tion of life. I think min­i­mal­ism is the oppo­site of Jew­ish art. One green pea on a piece of roast beef.”

Audrey Flack, World War II (Van­i­tas), 1976 – 77

2. When asked about what, if any­thing, fig­ure painter Philip Pearl­stein con­sid­ers Jew­ish” about his real­ist art, he replied, almost noth­ing, but I think that [my art] is very Amer­i­can – specif­i­cal­ly New York and per­haps that includes some­thing Jewish.”

3. Con­cep­tu­al and per­for­mance artist Eleanor Antin described her per­spec­tive on the Jew­ish­ness of her art as such: I don’t think being Jew­ish has been par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant in my work, though maybe my inde­pen­dence has had some­thing to do with it. I’ve been more or less for­tu­nate in my career – though artists are nev­er sat­is­fied – but I’ve always been some­thing of an out­sider. I nev­er fit in that neat­ly with any­body else. My state of per­ma­nent exile. My per­son­al Dias­po­ra. Giv­en this lousy world, it’s not such a bad place to be. And per­haps my com­e­dy. My work has a dark streak but it’s also fun­ny. Maybe that’s a Jew­ish trait. Laugh­ing all the way to the cemetery.”

4. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Arnold New­man reflect­ed on a series of works made in Israel that he con­sid­ered influ­enced by his Jew­ish her­itage: I made a lot of pho­tographs of Israel. I some­times went there to attend annu­al meet­ings of the board of the Israel Muse­um. My Jew­ish knowl­edge and my heart influ­enced the way I pho­tographed Israel. The prime min­is­ters, who I pho­tographed, are his­to­ry more than any­thing else. I put togeth­er a show of 57 pho­tographs of Jews from all around the world that influ­enced Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture. Can you call that Jew­ish art? I don’t know. One of my best non-por­trait pho­tographs is of the West­ern Wall. There was a rab­bi at the Wall and he asked me not to pho­to­graph him, so I pho­tographed his shadow.”

5. Pio­neer­ing fem­i­nist artist Miri­am Schapiro chose to address her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, explain­ing that she is not reli­gious. It is the cul­tur­al aspect of Judaism that inter­ests me. In oth­er words – where I came from and how these peo­ple lived before me and now. When I am inter­est­ed to dis­cuss my iden­ti­ty – being Jew­ish comes to mind and I make a work that reminds me of what it is to be Jewish.”

These artists’ respons­es are diverse, to say the least, as are the many oth­er com­ments and reflec­tions that I received. Invari­ably, when I give book talks or pub­lic lec­tures I am asked: What is Jew­ish art?” The audi­ence, of course, expects me to share a defin­i­tive answer – I am the so-called expert. What I offer are the words and thoughts of the very artists that I have stud­ied, while we look at some of the art in ques­tion, which I show dur­ing my pre­sen­ta­tion. I open up the con­ver­sa­tion to the group with whom I am speak­ing and we try to find an answer together. 

The answers are rarely the same.

Saman­tha Baskind is the author of sev­er­al books on Jew­ish Amer­i­can art and cul­ture, which address sub­jects rang­ing from fine art to film to comics and graph­ic nov­els. She served as edi­tor for U.S. art for the 22-vol­ume revised edi­tion of the Ency­clo­pe­dia Judaica.

Relat­ed Content:

Saman­tha Baskind is Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Art His­to­ry at Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author or edi­tor of six books on Jew­ish Amer­i­can art and cul­ture, which address sub­jects rang­ing from fine art to film to comics and graph­ic nov­els. She served as edi­tor for U.S. art for the 22-vol­ume revised edi­tion of the Ency­clopae­dia Judaica and is cur­rent­ly series edi­tor of Dimy­onot: Jews and the Cul­tur­al Imag­i­na­tion, pub­lished by Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty Press.