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  • The Role of Exhibitions in the Definition of Jewish Art and the Discourse on Jewish Identity
  • Kathrin Pieren (bio)

According to Di tsayt editor Morris Myer, who reviewed the 1927 Exhibition of Jewish Art and Antiquities at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, the definition of Jewish art was a straightforward matter: "In order to answer the [. . .] question whether we do have Jewish art or whether it is possible to have specific Jewish art, one has to clarify what Jewish means, or rather, what Jewishness means."1 Basing himself on a spiritual interpretation of Jewish identity, he developed a list of criteria by which to define Jewish art and then classified the artwork on display in accordance with those criteria.

Now, as then, various ideas abound as to the definition of Jewish art, but more recent authors have had less confidence in the validity of universal and firm classifications. In Jewish Art, Cecil Roth noted that it would be difficult to find common denominators in the work of all Jewish artists. However, he added that there are also no fixed categories for French or Spanish art: "for it is only by postulating an artificial unity, based on geographical and similar considerations, that one is able to regard the art of any country in all periods as a whole."2 Philip Dodd has similarly argued that the Englishness of English art is not predetermined, but is constituted and reconstituted for different purposes at different times, and would I suggest that the same fluctuation applies to other art historical categorizations, whether they are conceived nationally, ethnically, or otherwise.3 The concepts of art and identity are in constant flux, so the relationship between the two necessarily fluctuates. If the definition of an artwork as Jewish requires at least an implicit concept of Jewishness, then shifting definitions of Jewish art can provide insight into changing notions of Jewish identity. This article explores the art discourse produced in and by exhibitions of Jewish art in London in the first quarter of the twentieth century and discusses its relationship with the shifting discourses on Jewish identity.

The Importance of Exhibitions

Even today, as the interplay of culturally determined concepts including gender, race or ethnicity, and art production has been recognized, art historical overviews still tend to explore the relationship between art and identity primarily through the lens of individual artists and their biographies, investigating how experiences, backgrounds, and ideas influence artistic production.4 Such studies may address social factors, yet these tend to [End Page 73] be understood in light of the individual experiences and the creative process of the particular artist. This emphasis ignores the obvious fact that works of art are most frequently presented to and experienced by the public in the context of a display.5 The present study focuses on the representation of art and its consumption in exhibitions, which are important vehicles for defining the changing relationship between art and identity.

Owing to their public nature, exhibitions have a high degree of visibility and can thus transmit ideas to relatively large, dispersed, and even remote audiences, thereby inspiring artists, on one hand, and setting new aesthetic standards, on the other. Yet, this is not a linear process. Exhibitions are social spaces in which various audiences come together and different, sometimes conflicting, interpretations collide with each other, though certainly experts hold a privileged position in relation to the visiting public. By arranging the works in a particular way, categorizing and labeling them and discussing them in a certain manner, curators and critics suggest specific ways of viewing.6 Nevertheless, exhibitions regularly provoke debates and controversies at the curatorial stage and later among reviewers and the nonexpert public that are just as critical for thinking about art and identity as the exhibitions themselves.7 According to Howard Becker, "public tastes and public channels of reception" make up one of four sets of social relations that condition the work of artists.8

Over the last two decades, scholars have studied questions related to Jewish art by examining the role of exhibitions, but to date no one has followed the debates in one place over time.9 Nor has there been any systematic study...


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pp. 73-90
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