“Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art” by Ben Schachter
The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania (2017)

Ben Schachter declared on February 8 at the Yeshiva University Museum a manifesto for a new critical language of Jewish visual culture: “By sharing a common TEXT, contemporary Jewish Art has become the most radical art being created today!” While that statement obviously needs a lot of unpacking, it nonetheless adds to a dramatic trend in serious thinking about Jewish visual culture as this century unfolds. Simply put, momentous changes are brewing.

Schachter’s new book, “Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art”, discussed recently at YUM, proclaims that the analysis of Jewish Art needs to “move from image to action” as the model of critical discourse. He posits that formally Jewish artists were overly concerned with overcoming the strictures of the Second Commandment, inevitably basing their image making and critical appraisals on avoiding or negating forbidden idolatry imbedded in the graven image. Schachter sees this approach as missing what is a far more dynamic and productive paradigm in Jewish law, the Fourth Commandment of Shabbos. Imbedded in this law is the concept of the 39 Forbidden Labors of Shabbos that Schachter sees as pointing the way to art-making based on process and action, conceptual art; an art based on Jewish texts and practice that reveal the essence of Judaism as a system of thought and belief founded upon action.

Schachter’s analysis emerges in the context of historic discussions about Abstract Expressionism between Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg in the early 1950’s. Greenberg believed that the formal qualities of the paintings; the abstract composition, color, form and line carried the meaning of artworks. In distinction Rosenberg felt that the canvas represented the arena of action, the actual act of making the art was the locus meaning, i.e. “Action Painting.” This latter approach is understood to have encouraged a more conceptual approach to both making and understanding artwork leading to minimalism and conceptual art. For artists wishing to make a uniquely Jewish artwork the motifs of ritual, mitzvoth and Jewish practice become the actions in which process itself is more fruitful than a mere static image. According to Schachter these are the vital portals to explore Jewish meanings in the visual arts.

Schachter’s call to action is adamant: “Action is the heart of this inquiry. Action is also central to Judaism. To know Judaism well requires an intimacy and familiarity that is only gained through practice.”

Nine Nights of Hanukkah: Menorah for Shammai and Hillel (2015) by Ben Schachter

“Nine Nights of Hanukkah, Menorah for Shammai and Hillel” (2015) (graphite and charcoal on paper) by Schachter is a perfect example of action and process caught in one artwork. Hillel argued that the holiday should start with one candle and another added each night. Shammai decreed the opposite, first night light eight and then each night one less. This drawing depicts the famous debate between Hillel and Shammai in one menorah in which each night a total of nine candles are lit, each sage’s opinion demonstrated simultaneously. This inventive accommodation of two halachic opinions illuminates both understandings of the miracle of the oil and transforms the holiday into a radical dialogue to accommodate the process of halachic diversity.

With Without (2011) by Ken Goldman

Schachter’s book surveys a considerable array of contemporary Jewish works that share his conceptual lens. Included is a digital print of a performance, “With Without” (2011) by Ken Goldman. It pictures a view of the artist revealing the top and back of his head. While at first glance he seems to be wearing a black kippah, upon closer inspection we see he has simply closely shorn the rest of his hair and leaving an area of black hair in the shape of the typical orthodox skullcap. As the inherent humor subsides we are suddenly aware of the emerging social/religious commentary on orthodox head covering. Perhaps this custom/halacha of head-covering is so pervasive that it has been annoyingly programmed into the hair itself! More to the point the artwork expresses a fundamental discomfort and rebellion against the strictures of this traditional male Jewish practice.

These types of subversive commentaries naturally demand a Jewishly literate audience that is fluent in both the textual foundations of Judaism as well as real-life Jewish ritual practice. It is a conceptual art that is intimately bound to the Action and Text of the Jewish people. Hence its radical antinomian stance. In our homogenous and politically correct cultural establishment, it is refreshingly countercultural.

While not all contemporary Jewish artists are drawn to the specific methodologies of Conceptualism, it is clear there is a growing movement of Jewish awakening in the visual arts. Witness the 2008 creation of the Jewish Art Salon artist’s group, Matthew Baigell’s 2011 Jewish Museum declaration “We are living in a Golden Age of Jewish American Art;” Archie Rand’s 2015 publication, “The 613;” Ori Z. Soltes’ 2016 monumental “Tradition and Transformation: Three Millennia of Jewish Art and Architecture;” and the continuation of the Jerusalem Biennale 2015 and 2017 showing art exclusively with explicit Jewish content.

In this manifesto Schachter seamlessly joins this growing chorus as a practicing artist, theoretician and critic. As he concludes: “…artists who engage in Jewish art strike out on their own, unconcerned that they will be ostracized for work that is too Jewish. The risk faced, ever diminishing, is less than the appeal of drawing out artistic and aesthetic ideas from Jewish texts and exploring lived Judaism through contemporary art practice.”

Richard McBee