Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Modern Art, Modern Jews

This may be proof of the perversity of summer daydreams, but we visited the “Picasso Looks At Degas” exhibition at the Clark Institute in Williamstown a few days ago, and I found myself thinking about, of all things, how I've been meaning to revisit an argument I made in response to Peter Beinart’s influential article on American Jews.

Beinart had made the point, which polls and elections support, that the majority of Jews tend to be progressive and liberal in most things, and that the reactionary cast of leaders of American Jewish institutions could not possibly appeal to them—that AIPAC, ADL, and so forth were positively turning off young people on their campuses. Specifically, he argued that the leadership’s brand of “Zionism,” insofar as it had turned on tribalism, Manichaeism, and religious orthodoxy, could not possibly engender a sense of identification with Israel among the very people it most wished to attract.

Beinart seemed to conclude from this that a progressive Jewish leadership was therefore a kind of answer; that if such a leadership adopted a Zionism more in step with, and allied to, the Israeli peace movement, it would have more success in bringing young American Jews around. It would help cultivate appreciation for what was special about Israel, support secular Jewish culture, defend Israeli self-defense, and so forth.

NOW I STRONGLY supported his notion that there is a misfit between the American Jewish majority and their leadership. And I welcomed the advent of J Street, for all the obvious reasons, and also for quasi-theological reasons that may not be obvious. But is it really true that, if a reactionary leadership is turning young Jews off Israel, a progressive leadership is likely to turn them on? Indeed, if Israel were a social democratic paradise like Denmark, would this bring young Jewish liberals back to Zionism?

I argued that anyone who was once serious about cultural Zionist ideas would know that Israel and America are not really parallel universes for Jews, where the only important political question is, Are you progressive or are you reactionary? There is also the question of cultural affinity. For most American Jews, to be liberal means to wade in, as a sovereign individual, to the cultural currents of Anglo-American life. Think of the jagged line, in my generation, from Philip Roth to Bob Dylan to Grace Paley.

The obvious alternative to being caught up in the web of Jewish congregational life, Halachic orthodoxy, and a kind of tribalist loyalty to Israel—you know, Cote St. Luc or Teaneck—is not becoming a fellow traveler of Peace Now or an acolyte of secular Jewish life. It is becoming largely indifferent to Israel, and to lose, almost utterly, the cultural threads—Hebrew, liturgy, Torah—out of which secular Jewish life comes into the world, kicking and screaming against orthodox rabbinic smugness.

Which brings me back—perversely, I admit—to Picasso, say. You look at his early work, at the staged progress of his genius, and you see growing idiosyncrasy and abstraction, of course. But you almost never lose that feeling in your solar plexus that this was an artist who knew how to draw. No matter how abstract the work, you feel that the artist never lost touch with the world from which he was abstracting. What made him a modern artist was his obvious belief that he could take what license he wanted with objects, lines and planes. But what had made him an artist, as it were, before he was a modern, was his mastery of the objects, lines and planes of artists who came before—in the case of this show, Degas.

Picasso painted his way out of the classical Salon by about 15 years old, Degas by the time he was in his early 20s. But Picasso knew what the Salon was and had spoken its visual language before presuming to riff on it. To think out of the box you first need a box.

I SUPPOSE YOU can see where I'm going with this. What makes Israel unique—the cultural adventure that it was and is—is not simply Jewish military power, but the evolution of a modern national home, the development of a secular Jewish life, the fusing of Jewish civilization with liberal values—the “Jewish and democratic” thing. You didn't need a national home to create a big minyan. Go to Williamsburg. (Beinart would seem to agree with this.)

And yet the people who made this modern Israeli culture had first learned to draw. They knew the liturgy, they knew Torah—that is, a whole world evoked by the Hebrew language. The poet Yehuda Amichai had to know the prayer for the dead, God full of mercy, El Maleh Rahamim, before he could give us the ironic poem, “God full of mercy / Were God not so full of mercy / Then there would be mercy in the world / And not just in Him.” For emancipation to be poignant, there has to be an ancien regime. Otherwise, there is nothing but abstraction. What comes out feels false.

ALL OF WHICH leaves American Jews with a curious problem. They are instinctively, well, moderns, but those who are really learning to draw these days are caught up in the closed circles of synagogue orthodoxy. Most of them are not leaving the Salon, at least not yet. They seem relatively easy prey for rightist ideas; they may be the last people to identify with the progressive spirit and peacenik politics of most secular Israeli writers, artists and scholars.

And yet they are the first people—or at least the only young Americans—who have a real shot at appreciating what those writers, artists and scholars are up to; no matter what the politics, they are going to care about what becomes of Israel because that is where their cultural action will be. They will love Israel, not because of what it does, but because of what it is.

Given its Hebrew culture, Israel is the only place on earth where the struggle to be an emancipated individual can still be Jewish in this best sense. Jon Stewart might read Amichai and like the poem. But he won’t get the joke.

I am not awarding grades. There is no moral advantage to being a modern Jew in Israel or modern American with a vaguely Jewish pedigree. Life is merely life; its rewards do not have nationalities. My point is that if Beinart really hopes to understand what makes progressive Israelis tick, he will need more than admiration for their progressive “values.” And if he wants to look for progressive leaders of an American Jewish community, as opposed to an American Jewish "demographic," he might consider the searchers, however reduced their numbers, who marinated in halachic life and punched their way out—people like Beinart himself, perhaps. Odd birds with a love of Hebrew and an eye for beauty.


DebTroy said...

Beautifully written - you've said what I meant but couldn't find the words. TODA.

Potter said...

"But what had made him an artist, as it were, before he was a modern, was his mastery of the objects, lines and planes of artists who came before—in the case of this show, Degas."

Thanks for for this BA and especially bringing up Picasso ( and Degas). Gary Tinterow gave an excellent interview to Charlie Rose recently ( available online) on the Picasso show at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC which we unfortunately will miss. Tinterow is extraordinary. He said that Picasso woke up every day fighting for his life through his art/creativity/evolving work. Fascination with the depth of his genius does not seem to wane.

There have been so many other artists who are legitimately artists who have not mastered what Picasso did so well -what came before, especially Spanish artists and then the French. But perhaps these lesser artists only mastered aspects and have had certain strengths and/but who have had talent intellect, something to say very worthy.

"To think out of the box you first need a box."

Yes but--Picasso was rare, like Michaelangelo, who, it may be argued I think, never really lived in their boxes... from day one... or exclusively within them.

I think you have said in this post, though, essentially what you have said recently in other words.

I did not perhaps marinate long enough in orthodox Judaism before I punched my own way out at a very early age. No genius am I either, but I did pay a heavy price ( the choice was: or suffocate). I am not an odd bird either. But the greater odd birds ( Beinart who articulates brilliantly I think) don't come that often, ie ones that can marinate as long as apparently necessary in order to learn deeply what they need to learn, appreciate what they need to appreciate, and then "punch out" and THEN appreciate the beauty. I think I am reading you right, maybe not.

At a point I let go thinking it not only foolish but it was punishing myself not to be able to see the real beauty because I am clouded over with criticism and even disgust .

I like what Tony Judt wrote-("Toni"- NYRB) about being a Jew. I hope you will have something to say about him.

Silvia Tennenbaum said...

This is a wonderful piece, which says something that I myself have been trying to come to grips with for a very long time. And I have discovered that many of my fellow Jews, who agree with me about the crimes and misdemeanors of Israel's political class and its cohort, the orthodox fanatics, are curiously ignorant about Judaism as it was shaped in the many generations of the ancients and the diaspora. Now, I come from Germany, from a very assimilated family, typical of the bourgeoisie that was active in support of German culture and its institutions. Although my stepfather was instrumental in forming the orchestra that became first the Palestine Symphony and then the Israel Philharmonic, we ended up in the US. He was invited here by Toscanini, who conducted the opening concert, and was clear that he wanted a larger stage than that offered by what would become Israel. I was drawn to Zionist ideas, as I was drawn to the Left, all my life, but the engine of this attraction was the desire to be truly a Jew. That was unheard of in my family and when I married a rabbi, they were utterly thunderstruck, and never stopped talking about their misgivings. But I wasn't looking to lead a religious, i.e. synagogue-centrered (kosher) life, I was looking for something that was deeper than that, Judaism at the core of life, the Bible, the prophets, all the things that were the underpinnings for the life of a conscious Jew in the diaspora. I suppose I gave up making aliyah, in order to pursue that. I became a writer, but before that I was an art historian and I am always fascinated when you bring art to your blog. And this one is brilliant. I studied at Columbia, with Meyer Schapiro, whose Jewish foundation was strong in every way, though I am not certain that a lot of people realized that. I also studied under Julius Held, a yekke like me, who persuaded the mayor of the small town he came from, to put up a simple monument in memory of the synagogue that had been there for many many years until the pogrom of Kristallnacht. My husband, the rabbi, had grown up in an orthodox home in Rochester, NY and gone to what was then Yeshiva College and is now Yeshiva University. In New York. He did not remain orthodox, but he never shed the things he had learned there, and later, at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where his teachers were largely refugees from Europe, learned men of a sort we rarely find these days. Our "liberalism" was always deeply imbued with Judaism - it had its roots there, and so it shaped my thinking around its teachings. I am too old now to go and search for all of this - the Hebrew Culture you speak of - in Israel, but I am happy to read your essays, which always draw me into a world I might have shared, had things turned out differently. This is the core for which we must fight, and we ought to teach those who simply see Israel as oppressor and nothing else, that the must be something else, and if we cannot recognize it, we will never bring peace. I only hope that your vision becomes not only that of American Jews, but that it also remains alive in Israel, and doesn't fall victim to the settlers, the rabbis and the military.
Sorry to have gone on so long, but I wanted to tell you how much you've helped me keep the faith.

Potter said...

Sylvia, I don't know if you will read this but I appreciate your comment very much. Not to name-drop ( I mean it) but I studied art history with William Rubin and Leo Steinberg who were always talking with reverence of Meyer Shapiro and I even think they were his pupils, certainly influenced by him.

There is something there- the Jewish background and the attraction to art, art history ( include Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg)- the arts. Personally I found in the study of art history, and focussing in on art all my life, a path towards spirituality, towards connecting with the human spirit, and in doing so, an expansiveness, an embracing, and appreciation of all cultures and religions as fundamentally connected.

Everyone has to find there own way- and we should be thankful that there are so many ways, so many portals.

Thank you Sylvia... and Bernard.

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