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There’s Plenty of Significant Contemporary Jewish Art Hiding in Plain Sight

You won’t find much of it at the Jewish Museum, but a vibrant Jewish art culture does exist—and needs support.

First there was Edward Rothstein’s brilliant 2016 analysis in Mosaic of “The Problem of Jewish Museums.” The essence of that problem, he wrote, lies in their being “identity museum[s] that [are] wary of identity”—specifically, their own Jewish identity.

Now Menachem Wecker, again in Mosaichas dissected at length the new permanent exhibition of New York’s Jewish Museum. In his judgment, the exhibition, with its scattershot sampling of artifacts from the museum’s core collection, all too faithfully confirms the curators’ own stated purpose in mounting it—namely, to affirm not so much the values of Judaism or of Jewish culture as, in the curators’ words, “universal values that are shared among people of all faiths and backgrounds.” In thus distancing itself from the particular substance of Jewish thought and practice, Wecker writes, the Jewish Museum has vitiated any possibility of becoming what its founders envisioned it would become: “the hub for contemporary Jewish conversation, education, and memory.”

Next, Tom Freudenheim, continuing the discussion in a response to Wecker’s essay, has reminded readers of the museum’s off-and-on penchant over recent decades for “displaying contemporary art lacking any palpable connection to Jews or Judaism”—a penchant now manifested even with respect to the museum’s core collection of Judaica. As with many American museums in general, Freudenheim points out, so with the Jewish Museum, one detects a “pervasive discomfort or embarrassment when it comes to Western religion.”

Finally, Edward Rothstein has reacted even more cuttingly than Wecker or Freudenheim to the museum’s new permanent exhibition, excoriating its “master narrative” as nothing less than a “dismantlement” of Jewish culture and identity. Since the Jewish Museum “has aggressively abdicated the role for which it was founded,” Rothstein concludes acidly, perhaps the time has come for “its great religious and historical collections [to] be ceded to a real Jewish museum.”

Messrs. Wecker, Rothstein, and Freudenheim, two of whom I count as friends, have accurately diagnosed a serious cultural malady. In general, museums can function either to document and explain a past that is safely behind us even as that past continues to inform our understanding of who we are, or to engage and support contemporary culture—in this case, Jewish visual culture. At the Jewish Museum, tragically, neither is happening. As a result, the public, both Jewish and non-Jewish, slips further and further into ignorance about its own history and about the way in which Jewish cultural and intellectual roots have shaped present-day Jewish creativity—and specifically educated and informed creativity at the highest levels.

It’s this last point that I mean to stress in what follows. Today’s Jewish thinkers and creative artists, bereft of a vibrant forum dedicated to discovering, developing, expressing, and showcasing authentically Jewish ideas as realized in art, begin to wither, atrophy, and finally die. True, art continues to be made even in today’s institutional vacuum, but, especially in the visual arts, it remains on the outside, denied the lifegiving force of engagement, challenge, and criticism.

Which, building on Wecker, Freudenheim, and Rothstein, leads me to pose an admittedly speculative question: what would an ideal New York Jewish Museum look like?

First and foremost, an ideal Jewish Museum would be—must be—proudly Jewish: ethnically, intellectually, and religiously. American Jews are no more and no less than proud members of the country’s ethnic mix, and have a great deal to be proud of both in their history and in their current identity. It should therefore go without saying that the new Jewish Museum would champion those “great religious and historical collections” to which Rothstein alludes, and be eager to educate new audiences on their enduring beauty and significance.

If that is a “must” vis-à-vis the past, contemporary Jewish culture must be prioritized as well. In particular, dedicated exhibition space, and dedicated staff, must be devoted to exemplars of Jewish visual art that are based on and utilize diverse kinds of specifically Jewish content: content faithful not only to the monumental texts of the tradition but to the tradition of Jewish visual culture itself, from Dura Europos and ancient synagogue mosaics, through manuscript illumination, European painting, modern Judaica, Holocaust art, and so on up to the best artworks worthy of notice and preservation today.

In vividly demonstrating the cultural and artistic achievements of the Jewish people, such presentations would crucially provide inspiration and resources for current visual artists as well as musicians and writers. For the purpose of searching and intelligent cultural dialogue, well-educated artists, audiences, and critics are absolutely essential.

But, I can hear readers asking: where is this contemporary Jewish art you’re talking about, and where especially are the artists? My answer: hundreds are hiding in plain sight in America, Israel, and elsewhere. Indeed, over the last decade, many of them have banded together to organize a vibrant community. To name but the two largest organizations in the U.S., the Jewish Artists Initiative, based in Los Angeles, was founded in 2004 by Ruth Weisberg and currently has 125 members; in New York, the more loosely organized Jewish Art Salon, created in 2008 by Yona Verwer, has approximately 300 artists located mainly in the United States and Israel.

Both of these organizations participated in the 2015 and 2017 Jerusalem Biennale. Each is self-funded and totally independent of the other, and the two also differ markedly in scope and focus; but both bear witness to the fact that contemporary Jewish visual artists are a developing movement.

In order to survive and thrive, these artists need a forum and a basis of support in museums. Significantly, the Conney Project on Jewish Arts at the University of Wisconsin has provided one such platform for formal interaction among organizations as well as among individual artists. Since 2007 the project, created by Douglas Rosenberg, has encouraged new Jewish initiatives in all of the arts, with special emphasis on dance and visual arts. Just this past March, it hosted both the Jewish Artists Initiative and the Jewish Art Salon at the 92nd Street Y in New York. The resulting dialogue, and the artworks exhibited over the course of more than 30 sessions, strongly conveyed the breadth, complexity, and quality of contemporary Jewish art.

The Jewish Museum in New York already possesses a world-class collection of Jewish art and Judaica, as well as a century-old scholarly pedigree that could theoretically entitle it to claim the mantle of leadership as, in Menachem Wecker’s formulation, “the hub for contemporary Jewish conversation, education, and memory.” It simply needs the will, and the conviction, to live up to the “Jewish” in its name.

Published in Mosaic May 24, 2019

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