Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art

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Ben Schachter
Dimyonot
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , December
     2017.
     176 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780271079127.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Central to Ben Schachter’s Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art is the concept of “work.” Judaism’s definition of work implies that the product or process is “creative, enduring, productive, and limited to one of the thirty-nine melakhot” (63). Judaism defines work quite differently from the mainstream association of work with labor. Work, for Judaism, is synonymous with creativity and creative action. By unpacking notions of work, action, and labor in relationship to art, art criticism, and Judaism, Schachter’s bright yellow monograph explores and complicates relationships and relationality that have long been accepted, and yet, unchallenged.

As part of the Dimyonot series, Schachter firmly upholds the series’ interest in exploring the “intersection[s] . . . and interstices of Jewish experience and culture” (ii). Schachter’s book explores the second commandment as a “stumbling block to the growth of Jewish art criticism,” and challenges why it continues to resurface as a point of contention, contemplation, and criticism in Jewish art (10). The second commandment, the prohibition of graven images, “prevents Jewish art criticism from advancing,” and as Schachter demonstrates throughout his book, there has been little to no “motivation to find a scriptural alternative” (8, 9).

Therefore, Schachter’s new approach looks at Jewish art not with the jaded and historically fraught lens of the second commandment—the oft point of departure for Jewish art criticism—but rather he starts at the fourth: “My new approach provides a new way to understand what artists make today, particularly when their interests have little to do with the pictorial image and much more to do with process” (2).

The second commandment, as a point of departure, explores only the final product. This new critical approach to Jewish art exploration balances second commandment scholarship with a “critical method beginning with the fourth.” It is not the final product or process that informs contemporary Jewish art, but instead it is the mixing of the two that allow for a new, critical approach that is timely, contemporary, and relevant to the questions that plague Jewish artists and the art that they produce. Schachter does not offer a one-size-fits-all solution to the question: “what is Jewish art?”

That is the wrong question. Schachter instead proposes a refitting and a reframing of the commandments to offer a new alternative that works alongside and challenges the preexisting frame of reference.

Schachter’s book captures the attention of art lovers and art critics alike. The monograph is filled with contemporary art that is informed by Judaism to varying degrees. The artists featured, and the work that Schachter chose to showcase, comprise a small sampling of what one would call “Jewish Art.” All the artists featured are Jewish, but their relationships to Judaism—both in practice and in faith—vary. Divided into four discrete chapters, bookended by an introduction and an epilogue entitled, “Becoming a Jewish Artist,” Schachter’s book answers questions about practice and performance, creation and creativity, and criticism in the contemporary art world.

Seamlessly flowing from chapter to chapter, Schachter carries his reader through each new topic while continuously reacquainting them with information from those that came previously. This book, in many ways, hinges on relationality. The relationship from one chapter to the next, between the second and fourth commandments, regarding the definition of work and contemporary Jewish art, and the differing approaches in art criticism regarding product and process.  The author delicately explores the interstices present in contemporary Jewish art criticism while also balancing all sides of the conversation. Schachter says, in the final pages of his second chapter that “by focusing on action and melakhot, based on the interpretation of the fourth commandment, we construct an alternative to the second commandment as the foundation for Jewish art criticism” (67). Schachter’s book is a relational demonstration of how reframing can offer an alternative way to explore a topic that has, for so long, been left untouched or unchallenged.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Madison Tarleton is a doctoral student at the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology's Joint Doctoral Program in the Study of Religion.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ben Schachter is Professor of Fine Arts at Saint Vincent College. He is the author of Tzit Tzit: Fiber Art and Jewish Identity.

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