Defining Jewish Art in the Contemporary World

Art is an ever changing thing. It echoes the surrounding world and expresses artists' interpretation of it in a myriad ways. When we think of art movements, we understand that they can encompass many styles, media, concepts, and perspectives; and yet Jewish art is generally and narrowly conceived of as Judaica. It is not usually presented as a diverse group of styles, media, concepts, and perspectives.

I like to think of Jewish art as a river from which Judaica, Talmudic art, Visual Midrash, Feminist Jewish art, Cultural Jewish art and many other channels, that do not yet have a name, branch out of. In spite of all the information that is out there about contemporary Jewish artists and what they do, the notion of what Jewish art is supposed to be is stubbornly traditional and restricted. 

For one thing, artists are attracted to different aspects of Jewish art and fall into one or many channels. If none is to their liking, they can, and do, create another one. It is imperative that these decisions are respected, studied, and understood for the sake of Jewish art's progress and growth. 

In contemporary Judaica, there is an artist whose work is in almost every website that sells Jewish ritual objects: Yair Emanuel. Emanuel is, in my view, a Jewish Romero Britto, with his Pop Art, commercial, colorful, geometric, and puerile style. Like other contemporary Judaica artists, Emanuel puts his own twist on Jewish objects like menorahs and Shabbat candle holders. These do not look like the traditional gold and silver, heavily ornamented objects of years/decades/centuries ago. It is stimulating to see how artists are recreating these objects for new audiences. And, I wonder, will this at some point become Neo-Judaic art?

Now, Talmudic art is a very interesting niche, for it interprets Talmudic arguments and dilemmas according to the artist, which inevitably adds to the tradition of debate. Jacqueline Nicholls, is an exemplary Talmudic artist whose work many times overlaps with Feminist Jewish art. Nicholls' work also acts as a social experiment, for it brings medieval perspectives on certain issues (women, family, morals, etc.) to a contemporary audience that has either mostly grown apart from them or is generally apathetic, defiant, or contemptuous towards them, forcing an interaction that is bound to bring some interesting reactions and responses from viewers.

On the same branch as Talmudic art is Visual Midrash. As defined in Robin Atlas' website, this is "the process of investigating Hebrew biblical and other sacred Jewish texts as well as Halakhic laws" and creating art from it. This is a movement that is gaining momentum in Jewish art circles for it, like Talmudic art, draws inspiration from religious texts and interprets them from different points of view (feminine, personal, spiritual, etc.) Nancy Current, like Atlas, is also a Visual Midrash artist. Both work with different mediums (Atlas generally uses paper, fabric and thread, while Current works with glass and paper) and have unique working styles, but seamlessly manipulate them to express their thoughts on Jewish tradition and sacred texts.

As for Feminist Jewish art, I dare say that women Jewish artists inevitably create it, as it is difficult to separate one's gender from intimate work such as art. There is no art medium impermeable to Feminist ideas. Hadassa Goldvicht and Hila Karabelnikov, are representative of this Jewish art channeling. They challenge centuries-old ideas of what being a woman means in Judaism. Art pieces of this nature are not comfortable, complacent, submissive, or meek. As all Feminist movements around the world, this channel of Jewish art embraces other kinds of activism and brings them along for the ride, e.g. Jewish cultural issues with minorities, LGBTQ justice concerns, and other matters of contention. As a result it has lead to an overlapping with Jewish art that deals with cultural, rather than religious, matters. Chief among them are issues of cultural-religious differences, racism, and the ever present Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cultural Jewish art is another channel open for consideration and quite popular among Israeli artists.

I think that what contemporary Jewish artists propose is pretty straight forward. In spite of my disdain about pigeonholing artists and their creations, this idea of channels emerging from the powerful river of Jewish art, helps me put into perspective what has been happening, what is presently going on and what I can expect in the future of this field.

A. Iaroc