Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 2000
Kalman P. Bland The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual Princeton University Press, 2001. 233 pp. Paper $19.95 (069108985x)

“Art history is what one Jew tells another Jew about goyishe (i.e.—Christian) art.” This, at any rate, is how my teacher, Stephen S. Kayser, flippantly spoke of his discipline. Kayser, a member of the German émigré generation, author of an important study on Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece and founding director of the Jewish Museum in New York, was not far from wrong. Highly acculturated Jews have been disproportionately represented in the ranks of art historians. Among the “greats” of art history, one may think of Berenson, Goldschmidt, Panofsky, Warburg, Gombrich, Schapiro, Krautheimer, and this list is far from complete. While Jews have been conspicuous in the ranks of art historians, the art of Judaism has been prominent for its lack of prominence and even for its out and out disavowal. In fact, these self-same Jewish art historians (and many of their intellectual progeny) often presented amazingly conflicted images of Judaism and Jewishness even when they chose to deal with these issues at all. Jewish artistic production, (like, for example, Byzantine, African and Islamic arts) has suffered both marginalization and worse: has been valued only for the ways that it relates to the interests of the dominant and amazingly long-lived Western European canon of Art History.

Since the first monograph dealing with a Jewish visual theme appeared over a hundred years ago, an undercurrent of almost all scholarship has been profoundly apologetic. Introducing his important collection, Jewish Art (Tel Aviv, 1956/57; New York, 1961) for example, historian Cecil Roth opens his volume with an apologia: “The conception of Jewish Art may appear to some to be a contradiction in terms” (11). In North America, current scholarship on “Jewish art” generally occurs under Jewish auspices or is carried out by cultural historians (like Bland and myself) within semi-Jewish contexts such as Judaic studies programs within larger academic institutions. Much of the most profound research on Jewish visual culture takes place outside or on the fringes of art history departments, even in Israel.

Recent years have seen the beginnings of a reevaluation of the place of art within Judaism, and of Jewish art within Art History. The first fruits of this reevaluation were presented in A. Wharton’s Refiguring the Post Classical City (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), R. Cohen’s Jewish Icons: Art And Society In Modern Europe (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,1998), Vivian Mann’s Jewish Texts On The Visual Arts (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and C. Soussloff’s edited volume, Jewish Identity in Modern Art History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), to which Bland was a contributor. Bland’s volume is the first monograph dedicated to the question of how the previous consensus about Jews and art developed, and whether it reflects historical reality. It is the first of a veritable parade of studies that are in various stages of completion that reevaluate the historiography of Jewish art. Our author is amazingly candid and generous when he writes that “The Artless Jew is designed to show that Jewish bodies no longer ‘lack eyes.’ I hope to see my work and intentions superseded” (12).

Kalman Bland’s The Artless Jew looks at the question of Jewish attitudes toward the visual from the perspective of intellectual history, “Jewish philosophy” as he calls it. This is no art history book. Pointedly it includes not a single illustration! Rather, The Artless Jew consists of two groups of essays. The first address how and why Jews were constructed as “artless” in nineteenth and twentieth century Western thought (chapters 1-2). The rest of the book (chapters 3-7) presents varied medieval Jewish perceptions of the visual.

In “Modern Denials and Affirmations of Jewish Art: Germanophone Origins and Themes,” Bland traces how the notion that Judaism is “artless” developed among nineteenth-century German thinkers, notably Kant and Hegel. Bland uses the contrasting image of the art of the Jews that developed in Catholic and Protestant circles, and was adopted by various Jewish thinkers. While Bland does an admirable job of drawing together the strands of thought regarding Jews and art, I sense a lack of the larger picture. As throughout the history of Christian-Jewish relations, nineteenth-century Christian theology constructed its ideal and useful Jew without any reference to (or interest in) existing Jews and their religion. Jews were always the alter ego of whatever was happening in Christian thought. One wonders whether the German attitude toward the Jews and art is, for example, the mirror image of the “troublesome relationship” that Germans had (and apparently still have) defining their own identity in terms of art (see H. Belting, The Germans and their Art: A Troublesome Relationship, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1998). Further contextualization will surely add much to our understanding of how the art of the Jews was understood during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—if not about Jewish attitudes toward the visual in their own right! Reflecting the rapid acceleration of discussion in this field, Bland’s discussion should now be read in relation to classicist Tessa Rajak’s essay, "Jews and Greeks: the Invention and Exploitation of Polarities in the Nineteenth Century (see M. Biddiss and M. Myke, The Uses and Abuses of Antiquity (Berlin: Lang, 1999, 57-77).

Chapter 2 summarizes in very broad strokes various “Anglo-American Variations” on the themes previously developed. His sketch stretches over the entire twentieth century, and touches upon the thought of some of the most important Jewish artists and authors. As with the previous chapter, there are dozens of dissertation topics embedded in Bland’s overview—which makes sense in a work intended to raise the question of art and thus to support a paradigm shift on the whole question of Judaism and the visual.

Chapters 3 through seven present discussions of Jewish attitudes toward the visual. Bland utilizes various genres of Jewish literature, from philosophy to Biblical interpretation, travelogues to law. The core of this section is chapter three, “The Pre-Modern Consensus.” Here Bland shows that before the nineteenth century it was well known to Jews and non-Jews alike that Judaism permits art. In this short chapter (eleven pages) Bland moves very quickly between Jewish perceptions and Pagan and Christian sources, between antiquity and the modern period.

One of Bland’s major interest in this work is “to reinvigorate the field of medieval Jewish philosophy.” It is not clear to me what “reinvigoration” believes is necessary, and he does not explain. His central concern with philosophy is expressed in two chapters of The Artless Jew. Chapters 4 and 5, “The Well-Tempered Medieval Sensorium” and “Medieval Beauty and Cultural Relativism” each deal with philosophical aesthetics. In chapter 4 Bland explores “the sensory underpinnings of Jewish epistemology” as well as the thoughts of Duran, Maimonides and Judah Halevi . He concludes that Duran and Maimonides never argued, as the nineteenth century said that they had, “that human eyes and ears should be valued solely because they were vital to physical survival, hedonism, or abstract intellection.” On the contrary, “both urged their contemporaries to enjoy the multiple aesthetic benefits of a fully engaged, well-tempered sensorium” (91). In chapter 5 Bland compares approaches to the idea of beauty, principally in the works of Maimonides and David Hume.

Chapter 6, “Twelfth-Century Pilgrims, Golden Calves and Religious Polemics,” is particularly rich in previously untapped sources. In the first of the chapter’s three parts, Bland very cleverly engages medieval Jewish travel narratives to show how Jews responded to the art and architecture of their time and place. He then turns to Jewish thinkers in central Europe (Ashkenaz), Spain and Provance and explores their attitudes toward idolatry. Using the Golden Calf as a test case, Bland demonstrates some of the ways that Medieval Jews balanced between Biblical strictures against idolatry and their own sense of beauty.

Chapter 7, the final chapter, turns to the regulation of art in selected Jewish traditions, mainly as reflected in non-legal Jewish sources, particularly in Biblical interpretation. In “The Power and Regulation of Images in Late Medieval Jewish Society,” Bland demonstrates ways that medieval Rabbis legislated concerning art, balancing between aesthetics and idolatry. Jewish legal tradition is sparsely discussed, appearing explicitly only on the last two pages of this narrative. In his introduction to The Artless Jew, Bland notes correctly that “to overemphasize the law is to misrepresent Jewish intellectuals who cultivated it. To neglect the law is to distort Judaism by erasing one of its axiological foundations” (9). My sense, though, is that Bland has inclined toward the side of under-engaging Jewish legal tradition. I would have hoped to find this material discussed more profoundly in this soon-to-be widely cited study. Happily, V. Mann recently translated a significant number of sources into English (cited above). In note 46 (the last note of the book), Bland promises to discuss some of the legal traditions in a forthcoming article.

Throughout The Artless Jew, one gets the sense that Bland is personally very anxious to show that Judaism is not adverse to art. He has certainly proven that, writing in a very fine and engaging prose. Bland has shown that the whole question of whether Jews are “artless” is a construction of modern thought, and has little to do with pre-modern Jews. Kalman Bland’s The Artless Jew is an excellent counterweight to the vast literature that claims that Jews and Judaism are visually handicapped. To Bland’s credit, The Artless Jew accentuates just how much research is left to be done if we are to understand the place of Jews and Judaism within the History of Art—not to mention the place of art in the history of Jews and Judaism.

Steven Fine
Baltimore Hebrew University and the University of Cincinnati