Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier

Religious art – 1

For several years I was the director of a synagogue in Los Angeles. It was near the beach in Venice, a section of the city populated especially by writers, artists, musicians, and yoga teachers. (I fall into one of those categories but it’s not the reason that I was hired.) When I started there, a writer married to an artist – who was also a yoga teacher – was heading a committee to redecorate the library, and the original proposal called for painting the walls purple.

The synagogue was a casually-run place, and it seemed to have been common for members to bring in works of art that they wanted to donate, and to hang them anywhere. (In contrast, a congregation at which I worked in another state had a “fine arts” committee that reviewed proposed donations and rejected most of them.) It was a mess.

That began to change with the library redecoration, when a member who was an accomplished photographer donated a work that filled the only open wall space. Subsequently, another artist member offered the gift, for another room, of a work based on a prayer theme, and the offer was accepted.

I also started changing willy-nilly installations: replacing some works and rehanging others. In choosing what to keep and what to replace, the principle I followed was that great art always has a place anywhere, and that Jewish art always has a place in Jewish institutions. This meant that other art (neither great nor Jewish) would have no place in the building.

A question I might have asked, but didn’t, was what is Jewish art? For the moment I’ll stick with religious art, although we don’t have a strong tradition of it. at least with respect to representational art and art for its own sake. There is more history of artists’ making religious artifacts – going back to Bezalel and Oholiav in the book of Exodus – and, in synagogue design, of decorative arts. The Central Synagogue in Manhattan is an example of the latter: built in 1872 in a Moorish style, it had very extensive interior mosaic and tile work,  all of which was recreated when it was rebuilt after a fire in 1998.

Despite our ingrained habit of questioning everything, that particular question was never raised. We had an attic full of art that we all agreed was Jewish. Some of it represented scenes from the Hebrew Bible, or images of religious life; some of it interpreted religious texts; some of it represented Israel. But no one complained – which makes me wonder whether anyone else noticed. (We are trained to be people of the book, not people of the canvas.)

In upstate New York, one of the finest examples of Jewish art in an architectural setting is the 1966 sanctuary of Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, for which two large stained-glass windows were commissioned from designs by Ben Shahn:

Bimah window by Ben Shahn, Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, NY

Bimah window by Ben Shahn, Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, NY

Back to the photographer whose work was the only one to hang in the library. Later he had a large exhibition of his work in Los Angeles, to much acclaim (and a certain amount of scandal, because some of the photographs had been taken in the synagogue during religious services, which is contrary to traditional Jewish observance). I have one of the works, three small photographs grouped in one frame, and last week I hung it in my office here in Elmira.

7 comments on “Religious art – 1

  1. Connie Sullivan-Blum
    December 2, 2008

    The question of the production of art and group identity is an interesting one. My partner and I recently had a long conversation trying to untangle it. She is teaching a class on Lesbian and Gay Literature and was trying to put together a book list. The question became: must lesbian and gay literature be written by lesbian and gay people? Can the literature be written by heterosexuals with gay characters? Can a straight author recount lesbian and gay history and have it counted as Gay Lit?

    Can Jewish life or spirituality be depicted by someone who is not Jewish and be Jewish art?

    Can the story of African American civil rights be told by a white author and be African American literature or history?

    For the purposes of that class, my partner and I agreed that Gay Lit was written by gay people. But, what perspectives and insights are lost in that decision?

    And, we haven’t even asked the question, what is art?

  2. paulsolyn
    December 2, 2008

    There are numerous examples of music on Jewish themes – for example, Hebrew liturgical texts – written by non-Jewish composers. On the other hand, “White Christmas” was written by a Jewish composer. It is easier to count the “Canticum Hebraicum” by Louis Saladin (not Jewish) than “White Christmas” as Jewish music.

    It may not be completely fair to mention “White Christmas”; perhaps we should consider the body of works by Jewish artists that have no overt Jewish content. Not every work of Jewish art has to depict an old rebbe studying Talmud in the shtetl, or convey a liturgical theme, but the general subject is one that concerns me in my job and that I’d like to take up in a separate post.

  3. Connie Sullivan-Blum
    December 3, 2008

    To keep riffing on the conundrum of identity in art – I think the second question you follow is quite interesting when applying it to the question of LGBT identity in literature. If a novel is written by a known lesbian or gay author but has no overt gay/lesbian content and no gay or lesbian characters, is it Gay Literature? I’m thinking of Dorothy Allison’s novel/memoir, Bastard Out of Carolina. What about a novel by a lesbian with gay characters but no lesbian characters or vice versa?

    Can identity become a trap?


  4. Ginnie Lupi
    December 3, 2008

    hmm, connie, i wonder about this one a lot. when i was in graduate school, my professors pressured me to include more overt lesbian content in my artwork. i resisted, because i didn’t want to be identified as solely a “lesbian artist”; to me, anyway, my work was about much more than just my sexuality. but because i am a lesbian, does that automatically make my artwork “lesbian art”?

    several years ago, a straight female artist i know made a series of paintings of lesbian couples in passionate embrace. even though her models were all lesbians and/or bisexual women, i never considered the artwork “lesbian”, because i knew it was made by a straight person. but people who didn’t know the artist automatically labeled the work “lesbian” because of its content.

    so, is artistic identity dependent on the content, the artist, the viewer/receiver, or a combination? or none of the above?

  5. Lynn Dates
    December 22, 2008

    Link to a related theater conversation:

  6. Connie Sullivan-Blum
    December 22, 2008

    Thanks for posting this article. It speaks directly to the conundrum.

  7. Akua
    December 22, 2008

    While the title is Religious Art, when you ask the question What is Jewish Art? I think of the exhibition I saw two years ago at the Memorial
    Art Gallery of Jewish artists. You remind me that it wasn’t necessarily “Jewish Art” though from the Jewish Museum collection.I didn’t think to question the definition or categorization, I just looked and learned. So much was familiar to me as a New Yorker, that is as a city kid. There is the category/term Judaica– those sacred objects, and religious iconography where religious craft can be art.

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