Cultural disconnect

One thing became clear at this week’s panel discussion “The Jew as Artist/The Artist as Jew,” held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: To seek definitive answers on the topic of Jewish artists, don’t ask Jewish artists.

“I am sooooo unqualified,” said S.F.-based Jewish comedian/monologuist Josh Kornbluth when he stood at the lectern. “Is my art Jewish? Who knows?”

The National Foundation for Jewish Culture sponsored the discussion last week, bringing together Kornbluth, photographer Larry Sultan and Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, curator of the Phyllis Wattis Matrix Gallery of the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum. Michael Roth, president of Oakland’s California College of the Arts, served as moderator.

Roth started out the evening by raising a few issues. “When Jewish artists are told they’re making Jewish art,” he said, “they think that’s parochializing. The dominant problem for Jewish artists is: How do you disassimilate and not fall into something you no longer believe?”

Jacobson has an extensive curatorial background, including a stint at New York’s Jewish Museum. Rather than pontificate on the nature of Jewish art, she chose rather to show art because, as she said, “That’s what I do.”

She then displayed slides of several paintings and installations, ostensibly by Jewish artists. None of the works had overtly Jewish content, but Jacobson quoted one of the artists as having acknowledged the “possibility of a higher being weighing in on the activities” of the work.

She then screened a video by New York artist Slater Brady that featured scenes of a Christian youth choir and a voice-over by physicist Stephen Hawking musing about the theological overtones of the Big Bang. She closed with a Steve Reich-like audio piece consisting of a woman’s voice saying over and over “Cry, baby. Cry, baby.”

Then Jacobson thanked the audience and sat down.

Photographer Sultan has earned a worldwide reputation for his series of Hockneyesque images depicting suburban life in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, particularly the homes used to film pornography. Though he has been inspired by Jewish photographers like Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, Gary Winogrand and Diane Arbus, he, too, had never given much thought to the impact his Jewish roots may have had on his own art.

“The day I decided not to be a religious Jew was in Hebrew School at age 11,” he said. “But I’ve been helped immeasurably by Jewish artists.”

Sultan went on to show slides of their work, as well as his own. None of it had any Jewish content other than one image of a nude porn star in some Valley home (apparently a Jewish one, considering the menorah seen on a bookshelf).

Then it was Kornbluth’s turn. He kept the audience in stitches describing his family (“My mother went to Yiddish school; my father’s Yiddish was completely made up by him”) and himself (“I have a lot of the Jewish sexiness that makes gentiles smolder”). But he also claimed to know nothing about Jewish art or artists. “I know about the left to right stuff,” he said. “I’d like to find out more.”

During question time, the audience provoked the panelists into saying more about the evening’s central topic. At one point Sultan said: “Rarely do Jewish artists mark themselves. They’re not interested in ‘essentializing’ themselves. You don’t want to put a mezuzah by your work.”

Responding to a question about Jewish identity in Israeli artists, Jacobson said, “I find even less Jewish content in contemporary Israeli artists than in American artists.”

Afterward, San Francisco resident Susie Coliver noted, “It was an interesting disconnect between the panelists and those in attendance. We identify strongly as Jews, and those on the panel had a passionate ambivalence.”

Charlotte Newberger, visiting from Chicago, said of the panel: “It was fascinating. My Jewishness informs who I am, so it was hard to believe for someone else it’s not part of their whole being. There are so many different ways to be a Jew.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.