Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 24, 2001
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)

See Stephen Fine’s review of this book.

As its title suggests, Kalman P. Bland’s The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual revisits the evidence on Jewish aniconism and uncovers the origins and meanings of this most prevalent of modern myths. The conventional wisdom Bland seeks to overturn is now a profoundly internalized truism formulated during the course of the last 200 years by a broad range of writers, thinkers, artists, and scholars of all stripes (Jew and Gentile alike). The truism holds that Jews are a people without art. Judaism’s presumed aniconism generally is believed to be rooted in the prohibition of graven images by the Second Commandment and expressed in the Jews’ wholesale rejection of the visual in favor of the aural. Jews are, after all, the People of the Book; the Image is the rightful preserve of Gentiles.

If such essentialism prevails within the scholarly academy today (and indeed it does, if somewhat uneasily) it is because a historical investigation of the question has never been undertaken on such a scale and with the force and clarity that Bland brings to this study. The manufacture and advancement of the myth of Jewish aniconism is the principal concern of The Artless Jew. According to Bland, the book “investigates the social origins, intellectual moorings, and cultural implications of Jewish aniconism” (3), although in fact this only comprises half of his project. Interrelated with the historical argument is a less coherent but equally revealing assessment of medieval Jewish understandings of and attitudes toward visual forms.

The first two chapters present a narrative of the rise of Jewish aniconism, from its Germanophone origins to its popular and institutional entrenchment on two continents. Here Bland convincingly describes how Hegelian spirituality and Kantian ethics provided the philosophical underpinning, while Jewish emancipation and assimilation, together with mounting anti-Semitism, made the trope of Jewish aniconism seem reasonable, possible, and in the final analysis, necessary. With nineteenth-century cultural anthropology and Judaism’s traditional veneration for book learning added to the mix, one begins to understand how and why Jews and Gentiles of all temperaments—whatever their motivations—have so consistently concurred with this conventional wisdom.

Leaving behind the modern historiography, Bland the intellectual historian returns to more familiar territory in the analysis of medieval literary texts, discussed in chapters 3-7. By investigating “ideas about art, artisans, artifacts, and visuality that are embedded in literary traditions” (12), Bland is able to provide evidence for what he calls the “premodern consensus” on the question of Jewish aniconism. In establishing this consensus he assembles a diverse array of Hebrew sources, from the relatively straightforward rabbinical decisions concerning the appropriate uses of visual imagery to select examples of Jewish esoteric literature that contain vivid iconography. Especially useful to Bland in gaining access to the medieval Jewish regard for visual experience is biblical exegesis and the polemical texts to which he devotes particular attention.

The conclusion Bland draws from his analysis of these sources is disarmingly simple: The Second Commandment prohibition of idol worship was interpreted by the rabbis in its restrictive (and not comprehensive) sense, forbidding the creation of images of God, but allowing for the production and employment of non-idolatrous imagery. Aniconism therefore existed in premodern Jewish culture only in a very limited sense. Liberalism and permissiveness prevailed, laying the groundwork for an intimate association with the visual arts and giving rise to a more-or-less developed Jewish aesthetics. In short, medieval Jews understood images to be powerful and significant, and they were fully engaged in their appreciation and use.

Bland concludes that “artifacts and visual images were ubiquitous, indispensable, and occasionally troublesome in late medieval Jewish society” (141). The significance and implications of this bold study are potentially far-reaching. Through his fledgling effort to reconstruct a medieval Jewish aesthetics—to show that “Jewish bodies no longer lack eyes”—Bland hopes to “reinvigorate the field of medieval Jewish philosophy” (12). Certainly it seems that he has pried open a massive yet deteriorating intellectual doorway through which other historians of Jewish philosophy, ideas, and culture are bound to enter. In debunking the myth of Jewish aniconism, Bland has done something that art historians have been unable to accomplish, despite the earnest efforts of those scholars who, for a century, have been uncovering, describing, and often celebrating a “lost” Jewish heritage in visual art from late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period. Although Bland notes the existence of artifactual and documentary evidence, he is not an art historian nor does he choose to mine that body of literature in order to buttress or nuance his argument. Still, he recognizes the necessity of calibrating the evidence he presents against the significant art-historical record.

The question of why scholarship on Jewish art has been unable to counter the conventional wisdom on Jewish aniconism in a definitive or significant manner is another matter entirely. It is likely that because of the personal, professional, and institutional commitments of the scholars themselves, the cultural practice of Jewish art history has tended to proceed without the will or the ability to find the critical distance necessary for a searching historical analysis of the problem. It is no coincidence that Bland’s achievement with this book is that of an outsider to the field of art history. Nevertheless, art historians and scholars of Jewish art may profit from this achievement in two distinct ways. First, they may now turn in earnest to the previously overlooked literary evidence on medieval Jewish visuality discussed in chapters 3-7 of this book; this phenomenon has not been previously conceptualized. Second, and perhaps more important, they may learn the value of considering with greater care their own relationship to their subject and their own investment in questions of Jewish identity. As chapters 1 and 2 make clear, these are not incidental considerations, especially in a field as politically charged and value-laden as Jewish art history.

Not surprisingly, the revisionist fervor that drives Bland’s argument also threatens to compromise it in a number of ways. If tempered with greater judiciousness in the choice and deployment of evidence, for example, The Artless Jew might have been no less forceful but all the more credible. Although Bland draws on a diverse array of rabbinical and nonrabbinical sources, his evidentiary parameters are not well defined. One wonders how even-handed his examples are, what sorts of texts he omits, and to what extent his research extends beyond the examples he presents. This problem is paralleled by the very structure of the book, which, although conceptually balanced between the two main divisions, seems to lose some coherence after chapter 3. In each of the chapters that follow, Bland presents a discrete and self-contained discussion of a particular dimension of medieval Jewish visual and artistic awareness. What these lack is a well-articulated and rigorous unifying framework that would help to integrate material culled from previously published articles and related but distinct areas of research.

Also somewhat suspect is the unequivocal tone of Bland’s narrative. In his determination to situate Jewish aniconism firmly in the modern age, Bland overlooks the possibility of earlier varieties of Jewish aniconism—with distinctive social origins, intellectual moorings, and cultural implications—that might very well have inspired a more nuanced and thoughtful account of the question. Did medieval Jews never invoke the trope of aniconism for strategic or polemical purposes? Did Christians never express their disdain for Jewish intractability by referring to the Jews’ strict adherence to the Second Commandment? So often the medieval Jewish discussion of images seems to be framed in negative terms (what is prohibited or idolatrous) and concerned with policing the boundaries of the acceptable (which includes differentiating Jewish practice from Christian practice). One can therefore almost sympathize with a modern investigator—doubtlessly loaded with an apparatus of biases that Bland well describes—who perceives premodern Jews to be uneasy or at least circumspect in their attitude toward visual images and art.

Given the influence of cultural studies on recent theories of Jewish and Christian cultural forms and their interrelationships, it is curious that Bland is unwilling to acknowledge the degree to which a Jewish visual sense may have existed and developed in relation to non-Jewish varieties. He states that in contrast to the dominant Christian culture in the Middle Ages, which was able to appreciate the artistic legacy of pre-Christian civilizations, “vanquished medieval Jews were unable to neutralize Christian artifacts, aestheticize them, and experience them as art.” (141, italics mine) To deny that medieval Jews had the interest and ability to draw creatively upon the cultural forms of surrounding communities in their own cultural production is misguided. Not only is it out of step with a growing body of scholarship by cultural historians and art historians, but it also has no bearing on Bland’s central argument. Perhaps this effort to credit Jews with their own, unadulterated aesthetic sense is simply a product of the author’s affirmative overcompensation for two centuries of categorical denials.

Any transgressions, however, are overshadowed by this book’s obvious importance in revising the state of an age-old question. The Artless Jew should be read by students and scholars with an interest in returning to the sources themselves. They should of course be prepared to draw their own conclusions. Art historians ought to ask how or whether this reversal of the conventional wisdom on Jewish aniconism in any way suggests a revision of art history’s master narrative? Does the undoing of the erasure of Jewish art from art history entail some sort of grand or even minor realignment? Whether or not it does remains to be seen.

Michael Batterman
Assistant Professor, School of Art and Design, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale