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Authors : Bille Wickre, Adam Lutzker
Title: Book Review
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Summer 2001

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Source: Book Review
Bille Wickre, Adam Lutzker

vol. 3, no. 1, Summer 2001
Article Type: Book Review

Bille Wickre

Albion College

Adam Lutzker

University of Michigan, Flint

Catherine Soussloff, ed. Jewish Identity in Modern Art History. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. 249 pp. $18.95

Catherine Soussloff's Jewish Identity in Modern Art History, a collection of ten scholarly and well-researched essays, embraces a plurality of voices on the subject of Jewish identity in the discipline of art history as it shaped concepts of artistic modernism. Taking the view that identity formation is an ongoing process embedded in a historical context, Soussloff argues that the Jewish diaspora generates a tension between exile and assimilation. Soussloff is interested in identifying the epistemological consequences of this situation for the formation of modern art history. Specifically, she notes that the assimilationist ideology of Jewish artists, critics, scholars, collectors, and patrons led to a repression of their subject position and specific historic location that produced an aporia at the center of the discipline. The project of this edited volume is concretely to specify the nature of this aporia and trace its consequences in the realms of theory, artistic production, and critical practice.

Concepts of modernism that emerged after World War II were heavily indebted to Jewish individuals, yet Soussloff finds little evidence of Jewish identity in the created discourse of modern art history. She cites three specific reasons for the exclusions of Jewish identity from art historical discourse: the role of anti-Semitism in art history; the ideology of the humanizing potential of art as a fundamental mythology that leads to the policing of ethnicity; and the nation-building function of art that erases Jews as a people without a nation, a history, and an art (11). The response on the part of Jewish intellectuals is assimilation and decontextualization. The effects of such decontextualization include liberal individualist notions of the subject and formalist conceptions of the work of art. The aforementioned aporia concerns precisely the epistemological consequences of these repressions of history and subjectivity.

Essays that scrutinize the discipline of art history at its roots and seek to predict a future free of anti-Semitism neatly frame the collection. In the first essay, Margaret Olin contends that racist, anti-Semitic, and nationalist concepts entered the structures of art history at the very moment of its founding and colored all subsequent discourse on Jewish art. The final essay on Aby Warburg returns the reader to the concept of aporia. Discussing Warburg's collection of materials on anti-Semitism interspersed with the more predictable art historical materials, Charlotte Schoell-Glass muses on the silence that surrounds Warburg's Jewish identity, particularly noting its absence in Gombrich's biography of him. Schoell-Glass suggests that Warburg's concept of a science of culture might offer a means to transcend anti-Semitism in art historical discourse and beyond it.

A corollary to the discussion of Jewish identity in the arts must be exploration of the Biblical prohibition against the creation of images, which several essays address directly or as a sub-theme. Lisa Saltzman's discussion of the theoretical legacy of the iconoclastic prohibition leads her to brilliantly juxtapose Theodor Adorno with Laura Mulvey in order to understand the relation between aniconism and the ethical relation between the viewer and viewed. Linking poet Paul Celan and contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer, Saltzman explores their common attempts to purge their respective media (language and paint) of connotations acquired during the Nazi era as part of the project of contesting collective memory. Aniconism forms an obvious or implicit theme in many of the other essays.

One of the most valuable aspects of this collection is the illuminating rereading of work by familiar artists and scholars within the context of issues of Jewish identity. In the only essay to deal explicitly with gender identities, Lisa Bloom's work on Judy Chicago and Eleanor Antin makes a considerable contribution to the scholarship on these artists by noting the centrality of their dual identification as both Jewish women and feminists. In his refreshing reassessment of Clement Greenberg's "Modernist Painting," Louis Kaplan interprets Greenberg's formalist project of decontextualizing the work of art in light of his decontextualized conception of his own (assimilated) subject position, thus allowing for a more subversive and postmodern reading of Greenberg's late texts. This essay is especially tantalizing to consider within the theoretical framework suggested by Saltzman's work on Kiefer and in conjunction with Kuspit's rereading of Meyer Schapiro through a Jewish lens. Kuspit's exploration of the profound and paradoxical nature of Jewish identity and modern art as it was understood by Schapiro puts much of Schapiro's work in a new light. One wishes for an equally thoughtful treatment of Harold Rosenberg, whom Kuspit discusses briefly, to complement the work on Greenberg and Schapiro. Despite the generally sophisticated, theoretical tone of this volume, several of Soussloff's choices mar the otherwise excellent scholarly work. There is no discussion of the now-much-contested boundaries of "the modern" in terms of art or scholarship. Likewise, Jewish identity, although much discussed in the introduction, is not fully interrogated, suggesting a lack of real recognition of the diversity of Jewish identities. Soussloff unfortunately rejects class as a category of analysis for this project, privileging ethnicity and gender above it. Like gender and ethnicity, class identity formation is also an ongoing process embedded in history, complete with its own ideological contradictions and aporia that offer productive fodder for analysis. Despite her firm insistence on the importance of gender as a category of analysis, there is very little discussion of it in the essays. The one essay that explicitly addresses gender as a category of analysis, Bloom's, deals only with women. There is no serious interrogation of the intersection of Jewishness and masculinity, leaving unanswered the question of how constructions of masculine identities and Jewish ones come into conflict and find resolution. Despite these reservations, however, the book is a sophisticated contribution to current scholarship on identity formation.