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Social Concerns and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940.

Social Concerns and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940. By Matthew Baigeil. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015. xiv + 262 pp.

In his latest study of Jewish American art, Matthew Baigell addresses the work of socially conscious artists by exploring the complex interplay of "Jewish particularism and ... universalist intentions" during the pivotal sixty-year period between 1880 and 1940 (5). In a series of five closely related, chronologically arranged essays, the author explores the evolution of social and political imagery based on the premise "that social concern can be considered an aspect of the cultural and religious heritage of Jewish American artists who trace their roots to eastern Europe" (12). He focuses primarily but not exclusively on mass media ephemera, often in the form of cartoons that were published in Jewish magazines and newspapers. The immediacy and brevity of the messages, coupled with the impossibility of reconstructing their distribution and readership, are challenges faced by anyone who investigates the history of printed media; thus, Baigell's ambitious efforts to rediscover and elucidate this sort of material are commendable. As he explains at the outset, some of the illustrations are lower in quality because they "were downloaded from microfilm copies of old journals and newspapers" or "photographed directly from journals and newspapers [that] were sometimes marred by creased and yellowed pages" (xiv). Despite these difficult circumstances, the reproductions are more than sufficient.

Baigell first discusses a number of images that pertain to the mass migration of Jews from eastern Europe. He identifies four basic categories of illustrations, such as general cartoons that "present the benefits of socialism without describing the specific ways to bring it about" and those "that combined socialist themes with biblical, Talmudic, and liturgical references" (46, 53). Most are found in the Yiddish language newspapers Di Arbayter Tsaytung, Di Tsukunft, and Der Groyer Kundes. In two examples, the illustrations contain English inscriptions, each of which was probably appropriated from "an English magazine, apparently a common occurrence" (44). Although the author cursorily addresses these borrowings, they probably merit further investigation.

The unillustrated second chapter addresses the ideas of Karl Marx, the art critic Saul Raskin, Dr. John Weichsel (who founded the People's Art Guild in 1915), and others whose socialist writings exerted, directly or indirectly, an influence on Jewish American artists in the early twentieth century. Of particular importance to them was the role of art as a necessary component of working-class society, as opposed to the elitist notion of art as an aesthetic enterprise. In this context, Baigell also discusses the People's Art Guild, the short-lived Jewish Art Center, and slightly later Communist-controlled organizations.

The subsequent essays concern the period between the Russian Revolution and World War II. The third chapter contains a short history and selected examples of cartoons and drawings that represent Jewish American responses to the growing antisemitism in Europe. Baigell's fourth chapter opens with a discussion of cartoons that reveled in the fall of Czar Nicholas II and celebrated the new freedoms that the Soviet Union seemed to offer Jews, including the establishment of the autonomous region of Birobidzhan. This is followed by an investigation of negative responses by left-leaning critics who decried those works of art that did not seem to portray authentically proletarian subjects. Among them was Strike Talk (1934) by an obscure artist named Selma Freeman. Baigell's nuanced analysis of the complicated iconography of Freeman's painting underscores the difficulty of reconstructing the particular and potentially ambiguous political implications of imagery that was created eight decades ago. His discussion of only one female artist, about whom almost nothing is known, attests to the need for further research in this important area.

In the fifth chapter, the author focuses on the responses of Jewish American artists who "could not easily or quickly, if at all, internalize the demands the Communist movement placed on them," namely a prescriptive socialist realist art and the rejection of "bourgeois" modernism (142). A number of Jewish artists of eastern European origin, who were raised with a cultural sense of social justice and had encountered extreme discrimination, were also concerned with the marginalization of African Americans. Baigell's self-described "imperfect count of illustrations in magazines and periodicals" reveals that "Jewish artists made more sculptures, paintings, and especially prints of lynch scenes than any other subject except boiler-plate anticapitalist, anti-big business, and anti-fat cat themes," a topic that warrants continued study (154).

Baigell's conclusion summarily addresses the period after 1940. His discussion of the prominent postwar critics, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, effectively encapsulates the ambivalent relationship of each to his Jewish heritage. In contrast to the attempts by Greenberg and Rosenberg to reinvent themselves as wholly American, artists like Jennings Tofel and Ben-Zion overtly embraced their Jewish heritage.

While Jewish American art continues to evolve, Matthew BaigelPs careful research and thoughtful analyses elucidate a significant and influential period in its abundant history.

Andrew D. Hottle

Rowan University
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Author:Hottle, Andrew D.
Publication:American Jewish History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2016
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