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Are We Living in a Golden Age of Jewish Art?

The Arty Semite

By Matthew Baigell, March 4, 2011

Most people do not know that we are living in a golden age of Jewish American art. But, as I will explain in a lecture at the Jewish Museum on March 7, we are.

‘In the Land of the Brave’ by Siona Benjamin

Since around 1975, there has been an incredible but largely ignored outpouring of art based on the Bible, the Talmud, Kabbalah, the prayer books, and midrash by artists all over the country. Depending on their points of view — feminist, psychological, existential — they approach their subject matter in entirely different, personal ways. Rather than illustrate texts they challenge their subject matter, as well as invent explanations of their own. Their work has little precedent in past Jewish American art, and the artists have leap-frogged back over generations to find their source material directly in the ancient texts. Taking nothing for granted, they have few inhibitions about questioning what they find.

Born in the 1930s and afterward, they have no memory of and few ties to the experiences of the immigrant generations or to those who lived through the Depression. In addition, they were too young to suffer from American anti-Semitism or the Holocaust. They form no school, but as Jewish artists they were encouraged to “come out” by the successful 1967 and 1973 wars in Israel, the feminist, gay, and African-American liberation movements, as well as by the Jewish Renewal movement in the 1970s and 1980s. They are the first generation of Jewish artists who feel very comfortable as both assimilated Americans and proud Jews.

Largely unaware of each other’s existence because their work has been neglected by the mainstream press, the artists have recently formed organizations such as the Jewish Art Salon in New York and the Jewish Artists Initiative in Los Angeles to explore what it means to be a Jewishly oriented artist in modern America. In New York, their work is exhibited at venues such as the Yeshiva University Museum and Hebrew Union College.

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