August 27th, 2008 by Menachem Wecker
Tom L. Freudenheim (site here) is a museum consultant, writer, and lecturer, with extensive experience at Jewish and cultural institutions, including serving as: deputy director/COO at the Jüdisches Museum Berlin, executive director at YIVO, several positions at the Smithsonian Institution, director of the Worcester Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, and director of programs at the National Endowment for the Arts. (Image from: http://www.jpr.org.uk/)
MW: You have done a lot of writing, lecturing, and curating on art made by Jews and about Judaism. How, if at all, do you define “Jewish Art”? Is it a helpful concept?
TF: I don’t define “Jewish art” or any other kind of art. Art tells me what it is; I don’t tell art what it is. It’s an issue that also arises in regard to so-called “craft” — and my generic response is “if I like it, it’s art; if I don’t like it, I don’t care what you call it.” “Jewish art” means different things to different people, which is OK with me — art by Jews, art about Jews, “My grandmother’s noodle kugel” (as Harold Rosenberg once characterized the term), art relating to Jewish subject matter (whatever that is), and I don’t have a problem with that. Definitions aren’t especially useful in this sort of discourse. I use “Jewish art” as sparingly as possible, but it can mean different things depending on when and where I’m using the term.
MW: Do you think art history scholarship has given Jewish art the attention it deserves? What about scholarship on religion? Religion and art journalism? Religious Sermons?
TF: Conventional mainstream western art history scholarship used to be uncomfortable about handling anything Jewish. That was because many of the pre-eminent art historians were Jewish (or “of Jewish origins”) and they lived in a world that was more overtly anti-Semitic than ours, and there may have been professional risks in dealing with Jewish anything. (Not a problem, of course, for Yale’s Erwin Goodenough, whose magisterial 13-volume study of Jewish symbols in the Greco-Roman world opened up many new worlds of Jewish and other scholarship.) I don’t think that’s a problem anymore. Lots of scholars (Jewish and non-Jewish) work on art issues that relate to Jewish subject matter in various ways. Journalism deals with Jewish issues as appropriate, but Jewish journalism does it less than other major publications. But that’s about the lingering uncertainty that “art” (vs. Israel or fund raising) will be “good” for Jewish continuity (whatever that is). I don’t hear too many sermons, but they probably reflect what’s in the press — except when the clergy decides that art is a good hook with which to grab some marginally-connected constituency.
MW: What are some of the most common and most egregious misconceptions you have encountered about Jewish art?
TF: The misconceptions about Jewish art are mostly that there is agreement about what the term actually means. It’s difficult to maintain discourse about a subject that isn’t commonly understood. And probably the most common misconception, which is promoted by most “history of Jewish art” books, is that there is a continuity of tradition that parallels various other art histories. Because so much of what we know about art in the Jewish tradition was only discovered (uncovered) in the past century (+/-), Jews making art in earlier eras didn’t have access to the visual information we now accept as part of Jewish art history. That’s radically different from, for example, western art’s direct ongoing references to preceding art — all the way to antiquity (but not, of course, including cave drawings, or certain key archaeological finds such as the so-called Venus of Willendorf).
MW: To what extent, if at all, does it bother you that Jews, under biblical law, destroyed many “idols” that would have been hailed as treasured artifacts today? Do you see idolatry as a problem for Jewish artists today?
TF: I’m not bothered by the destruction of the art of the past. (I’m more bothered by the destruction in our own time.) It’s also quite likely that the idols that were destroyed by iconoclastic Hebrews (were they really Jews?) are like similar material of which there are extant examples from the same periods. Most contemporary Jewish artists probably aren’t sufficiently immersed in Jewish tradition and law to worry about image-making. The Israeli abstract artist, Yaakov Agam, cited Jewish anti-image laws as an influence in his using abstraction, but I’m not persuaded by this argument. And there is evidence that at various periods Jews were not especially bothered by the strictures against image-making. If there’s a “Jewish problem” concerning idolatry and art, it’s probably more in relation to the art market and escalating art values and collecting and museums.
MW: How important is it for scholars of Jewish art to be well versed not only in Jewish history and theology, but also other faiths and the arts of other faiths?
TF: I think all scholars in all fields need to be as well grounded as possible in all areas even faintly related to their specialty. That’s difficult in our world of such vast accumulation of information, but it’s still a goal worth striving for. I don’t think you can work in any aspect of Jewish scholarship (including art) without having some understanding of how your special interest relates to the same interest within other traditions (whether national, religious, or ethnic). I suspect that the greatest of our Talmudists were/are familiar with the writings of the Church Fathers.
MW: What, if anything, can Jewish art offer atheists? Members of other faiths?
TF: I don’t think art or Jewish art can offer anything special to atheists (Jewish or other), or to people of other faiths that isn’t generally available. It’s sometimes a useful “point of entry” to learning about Judaism, but you can’t understand Judaism or Jewish history by looking at art. That’s true for Jews or for anyone else. You can’t understand Christianity by looking at art, either — but art plays a more important role in Christianity, so you can learn more about it via art. That doesn’t work in the Jewish realm — although most Jewish museums try to pretend otherwise.
MW: What is some of the most exciting contemporary Jewish art in your estimation? What are some of your favorite pieces of Jewish art throughout history?
TF: I’ll pass on telling which contemporary artists I like (I have extremely eclectic tastes). As for art of the past, I don’t really think in terms of my favorite Jewish images — although if I did, most of them probably wouldn’t qualify as Jewish art: Ghiberti’s “Sacrifice of Isaac” bronze relief; Rembrandt’s etching of the same subject; Rembrandt’s “Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law”; Donatello’s and Bernini’s David sculptures; and that sort of thing — there are too many to mention. I sometimes try to grasp at the notion of spirituality through images — but they are always Christian: the Avignon “Pieta” or the Isenheim and Ghent altarpieces.
MW: How, if at all, does your own religious faith (or lack thereof) relate to your scholarship? Do you think it is important for experts on religious art to be believers?
TF: Believing (whatever that means) doesn’t really enter the equation for me — neither with respect to my feeling myself a very committed Jew, nor with my interest in art. My guess is that a lot of the best scholarship has been done (and is still being done) by non-believers. (Well, they believe in scholarship and in learning and in its value.) But (thank goodness!) asking people what or whether they believe isn’t really part of conventional discourse these days. But that’s not to say the believers can’t be or are not bona fide scholars, and it’s quite possible that deep belief might provide insights not available to others. I wouldn’t know.