Elisa Narin van Court

title.none: Bland, Artless Jew (Elisa Narin van Court)

identifier.other: baj9928.0206.004 02.06.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Elisa Narin van Court, Colby College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Bland, Kalman P. The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pp. xii, 233. ISBN: 0-691-08985-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.06.04

Bland, Kalman P. The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pp. xii, 233. ISBN: 0-691-08985-x.

Reviewed by:

Elisa Narin van Court
Colby College

In The Artless Jew, Kalman P. Bland has given us a learned and uncommonly generous intellectual history of Jews, Judaism, and the visual arts to disprove conventional wisdom that asserts Judaism is aniconic or hostile to the visual arts due to the Second Commandment's prohibition on creating "graven images". The book's Introduction, seven chapters, copious notes, and comprehensive Bibliography showcase Bland's dense, but accessible, scholarship and his deep engagement with the philosophical, ideological, historical, and theological dimensions of Jewish aesthetics. Drawing on modern and premodern texts, Bland persuasively demonstrates that Jewish aniconism is a modern construction generated and shaped by anti-Semitism and Jewish assimilation, and has little to do with premodern Jewish response to the visual arts.

Bland lays out the terms and parameters of his analysis in an Introduction which is as noteworthy for its personal approach as it is for the clarity with which the author introduces and summarizes his subject matter. As Bland explains it, he began this project when his "initial confidence in the truth of Jewish aniconism was shaken by unfulfilled expectations". (5) These "unfulfilled expectations" were, in part, the lack of "uniformly dismissive, critically negative" medieval and modern Jewish philosophical discussions of art. We can only be grateful for the frustration of Bland's expectations in that it led to his writing this scholarly account which overturns conventional wisdom even as it testifies to the tenacity of conventional wisdom in the face of "empirical evidence that indicates the existence of authentic Jewish art". (8) In offering his corrective reading of Jewish aniconism, Bland is generously aware of the extent to which the social and academic space he inhabits enabled the writing of The Artless Jew. Bland is equally generous in crediting the writings of Linda Nochlin and Michele Wallace for shaking him out of a "dogmatic slumber"--an awakening that prompted this interrogation of conventional wisdom concerning Jewish aniconism and suggested a specific correlation of "modern perceptions of Jewish art with anti-Semitism and the struggle for Jewish identity". (11) [1] Bland's generosity extends, in particular, to his readers in the elegance and ease with which he sets out in his Introduction the terms, contexts, and aesthetic debates regarding Judaism and the visual arts. Bland both defines the themes of Jewish aniconism (the Jews are the People of the Book; there are no authentic Jewish artistic traditions; at best, Jews imitate the art of their host culture; the Second Commandment stunted Jewish production and appreciation of the visual arts; in contrast to the Greeks who were visually oriented, the Jews were and remain aurally oriented, etc.) and invokes the various fields and scholars which promulgate Jewish aniconism including cultural historians, Jewish artists, scholars of Jewish studies, biographers, philosophers and critics. Even readers who come to The Artless Jew with little understanding of the issues involved are well prepared, after Bland's careful introduction, for the intellectually dense chapters which follow.

Working in reverse chronological order, Chapters One and Two investigate the modern origins, contexts, and themes of Jewish aniconism. Chapter One looks at modern denials and affirmations of Jewish art by Germanophone intellectuals, and begins by setting out what will become an important dichotomy: the competing claims of "some sort of art" in Jewish culture and "no such thing as Jewish art". (13) Invoking the pronouncements of Kant (who approved Jewish aniconism) and Hegel (who disapproved), Bland argues that German intellectuals, under the pressures of Jewish emancipation and assimilation and rising anti-Semitism, sought to dissociate "Judaism from the visual arts". (14) Depending upon the focus and motives of those who followed, Jewish aniconism ("no such thing as Jewish art") is a negative or a positive reflection upon Jews and Judaism. In its most positive construction, Jewish aniconism testifies to the moral superiority of Judaism and its commitment to "spirituality and abstract thought". (32) In one of the more negative constructions, Jewish aniconism is proof of the Jews' focus on "profitability" and a product of their "biological inferiority". (26) The minority who deny Jewish aniconism and argue for "some sort of art" do so from a variety of positions including Zionist ideologies in which a revival of art is seen as a sign of hope. (34) Bland draws on thinkers as diverse as Heinrich Heine, Hermann Cohen, Heinrich Graetz, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Richard Wagner, Martin Buber, Marc Chagall, and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to finely articulate the complex ways in which Jewish aniconism was affirmed or denied for variously different historical, political, and ideological reasons in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe.

Chapter Two turns to the Anglo-American variations on the European construction of Jewish aniconism. The chapter begins with David Kaufmann's attempt to revise the "fable" of Jewish aniconism in a 1897 essay in the Jewish Quarterly Review, but Bland quickly notes that "fable or not, the ideologically overdetermined notion of Jewish iconophobia withstood Kaufmann's critique. Jewish iconophobia became conventional wisdom and prevailed throughout the twentieth century." (37) What follows in this chapter is a chorus of voices, particularly those of integrationist Jews in Western Europe and America, who either reprise Germanophone arguments or generate new ones in their denial of Jewish art. There are the exceptions who consider ceremonial objects to be Jewish art, or those who seek a "distinctive Jewish art", which they seem to find in avant-garde abstraction and minimalism (51), but for the most part, there is uniform support for the conventional wisdom of Jewish aniconism. And once again, Bland presents a diverse cast of characters who testify to the lack of Jewish art including Solomon J. Solomon, Herbert Howarth, Harold Rosenberg, Cynthia Ozick, Max Dimont, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Jay. While this chapter resembles the first in its thorough and scholarly research, there is a discernable shift in tone as Bland's focus turns to England and America in the twentieth century. Section III of the chapter begins: "Intellectuals who denied Jewish art were supposed to have known better" (45), and this critique is followed in the beginning of Section IV with a rhetorical listing of evidence for Jewish art which is ignored by the proponents of aniconism, each phrase or sentence prefaced with "despite": "Despite the ever growing mass of artifactual evidence and scholarly revision...Despite three thousand items in a bibliography of studies devoted to Jewish art, despite Marc Chagall's autobiographical remarks" (47) and so on. Bland both takes to task those who should have known better and then goes on to contextualize Jewish aniconism in the broader environment of socially constructed debates and disagreements. This is a fine move, both rhetorically and substantively, as Bland notes the contingent nature of aniconism and its dependence upon particular social ideologies and institutions.

Having analyzed Jewish aniconism in modernity, Bland turns in Chapter Three to a discussion of premodern ideas of Jewish art and visuality. More "thumbnail sketch of the historical record" (59) than comprehensive discussion, Chapter Three's premodern consensus comes firmly down on the side of Jewish art and visual acuity. Using Moshe Barasch's distinction between "comprehensive" and "restrictive" interpretations of the Second Commandment, Bland demonstrates that the "restrictive" interpretation, that which prohibits only the representation of God, was the operant understanding of the Second Commandment in the premodern period. Chapter Three serves both as a bridge between modern and premodern formulations of Jewish aesthetics and as introduction to the medieval topics which Bland more fully explicates in Chapters Four through Seven. The chapter is an excellent chronological account of premodern perceptions of Jewish art, and a highly useful and directed guide to what follows.

Chapter Four focuses on the aesthetics of sensory perception as articulated by two medieval philosophers, Moses Maimonides and Profiat Duran. The chapter demonstrates that both scholars not only did not privilege hearing over sight, but espoused the utility and necessity of engaging the full range of somatic experience in preparation for experiencing spiritual pleasure. Bland explores the nature of their agreement regarding sensory experience and the ways in which the two philosophers, responding to their historical moment, participate in different epistemes which lead to variously different conclusions regarding Scripture. Their Scriptural disagreements aside, they both "urged their contemporaries, for different purposes, to enjoy the multiple aesthetic benefits of a fully engaged, well-tempered sensorium". (91) Chapter Five continues to explore the aesthetics of Maimonidean philosophy, but here Bland revises the concept of beauty by comparing the aesthetic ideologies of Maimonides and David Hume. In this anachronistic but fascinating account, Bland concludes that there are more similarites than differences between the two philosophers in regard to beauty, particularly in the shared idea that locates "'beauty in the mind that contemplates'; and more precisely in that part of the mind that Hume distinguished from reason and referred to as 'taste' or 'sentiment'". (97) Bland briefly explores the cultural relativism of Maimonidean aesthetics in a discussion of his influences, and ends the chapter with an investigation of the afterlife of Maimonidean concepts in which he concludes that the historical crises of the later Middle Ages led late medieval Jewish intellectuals to renounce "the strictly psychological, relativistic, and antimetaphysical foundations of Maimonidean aesthetics". (108) The densely intellectual explorations of Chapter Five would have benefitted from a fuller explication of some of its parts. Invoking Hume as a way to understanding Maimonides works well, but the tripart structural divisions leave the reader floundering a bit in their understanding of Maimonides's response to his predecessors and in need of a more capacious rendering of the afterlife of Maimonidean aesthetics, especially as they reflect historical and cultural crises. Importantly, however, Bland clearly establishes that sensory appreciation of beauty is fundmental to premodern Jewish aesthetics.

In Chapter Six Bland temporarily leaves the purely philosophical realm for a thoroughly researched and historicized account of two late twelfth-century Jewish pilgrims and travel writers, Benjamin of Tudela and Petahiah of Regensburg. Having established the philosophical underpinnings of Jewish aesthetic appreciation, Bland now offers material proofs as he analyzes the ways in which both pilgrims "attended mindfully to the visual". (109) Yet however delightful our excursions with the pilgrims may be, central to this chapter is a deeply informed discussion of responses and interpretations of the golden calf episode in Exodus 32. Because this biblical episode is freighted with possibilities of idolatry and the creation of graven images, it is all the more remarkable that rabbinical interpretations of the golden calf rescript the episode in a variety of ways including polemical commentaries against Christian images and validation of Jewish. Bland's scholarship here is exemplary as he traces out rabbinical discourse concerning legitimate and idolatrous images and then concludes with a brief discussion of the Jewish polemics that arise in response to Christian.

Chapter Seven moves into the late medieval period and continues with issues of images and polemics, both heightened now with the Jews' status as a persecuted minority. Bland's discussion of the power latent in particular Christian images and Jewish response to the pressures of ubiquitous and oppressive Christian imagery is thoughtful, although when he turns again to the golden calf, an opportunity is lost to discuss one of the more potent visible signs of Christian hegemony--the twinned statues of triumphant Ecclesia and defeated Synagoga. Granted that The Artless Jew is concerned with ideas, not specific monuments, when Chapter Seven invokes the idea of Christian images as cohersive, oppressive, and ubiquitous, the discussion is concerned with images as materially present and a discussion of one of the more suggestive and cohersive would have been apt. This last chapter is the shortest (excepting Chapter Three) and tends to raise issues like the relations between visual artifacts and sexuality, or the power that visual images exude, without the full discussions we have come to expect. (If I may digress for a moment, another expectation which goes unfulfilled is a discussion of the relationship between Jews as visually handicapped as regards art and one of the key Christian polemical figurations concerning the Jews-- that they are blind because they do not accept the 'new' dispensation. The absence of any discussion of the relationship between literal and figurative charges of blindness leaves a conceptual gap in an otherwise thorough and scholarly work). Bland concludes the chapter, and the book, with a strong statement in support of Jewish art and visual acuity, even though the chapter hints at intriquing directions for further inquiry.

It is important to note that the book contains no plates or illustrations (aside from the cover photo). Bland investigates ideas about art and visuality, not specific images and monuments, and in this he succeeds magnificently. Despite my minor quibbles, The Artless Jew ranges widely through sources as disparate as travelogues and mysticism, biblical commentaries and philosophy, and demonstrates, with great learning and elegance, that Jewish aniconism is a modern construction, conventional wisdom motivated and developed from the pressures of particular historical, cultural, social, and political moments and ideologies. Deeply historical and philosophical, Bland writes with generosity and scholarly acumen a book which will be essential reading for anyone interested in Jewish Studies, art history, and medieval and modern philosophy and history.


[1] Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?", in Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker, eds., Art and Sexual Politics: Women's Liberation, Women's Artists, and Art History (New York: Collier, 1973), 1-39. Michele Wallace, "Afterword: 'Why Are There No Great Black Artists?' The Problem of Visuality in African-American Culture," in Gina Dent, ed., Black Popular Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), 333-46.