The Image’s Updates

Books of Jewish Beauty

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Article Link | Sara Lipton

Since the late eighteenth century, Jews have often been viewed as contributing little to the visual arts. The idea began with Enlightenment thinkers, such as Kant, whose disdain for sensory experience led him to praise what he considered to be the admirably abstract, image-less, and therefore philosophical nature of ancient Hebrew religious thought. Since then, Jews’ alleged disregard for aesthetics has been variously attributed to the Second Commandment’s prohibition against graven images, or to a logocentric culture’s lack of interest in the visual realm. Jews have even been said to have a defective sense of color.

Although the iconophobia of pre-modern Jewry has now been thoroughly debunked by scholars—Kalman Bland’s Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual (2000) details a rich history of Jewish aesthetic theory and artistic production—it is all too often replaced by a stereotyped idea of Jewish art, all caftans and camels or dancing violinists, and in any case distinctly archaic and thoroughly kitsch. Like the idea of the single-mindedly bookish Jewish scholar, this stereotype emphasizes the Jews’ cultural difference, in that it imagines Jews as quaint, rural, and/or exotic, separate in habit, dress, and mindset from the peoples among whom they live.