Soltes on Baigell, 'Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940'

Matthew Baigell
Ori Z. Soltes

Matthew Baigell. Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015. 280 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8156-3396-9.

Reviewed by Ori Z. Soltes (Georgetown University) Published on H-Judaic (February, 2016) Commissioned by Matthew A. Kraus

Jewish American Artists as Social Critics

When I open a book written by Matthew Baigell I typically have two expectations. I count on something very well researched, with a careful and judicious handling of diverse sources, and I expect to come away with some new insights into the subject, no matter how well I might have thought I already knew it. Baigell’s long history of parsing different areas of American art and of the work of American Jewish artists has yielded admirable discussions of these artists’ reflections on the Holocaust and on other issues relevant to human questions as those questions are filtered through both Jewish and American lenses.

This volume proves no exception. It is well researched, well organized, and informative. I would even disagree with his apology at the outset (on page xiv of the acknowledgments) regarding the number and quality of images that he was able to obtain. For one thing, they are so skillfully used to illustrate his points that one would hardly stop to think that there are not enough or to notice a less than optimal quality for one or two of them—even without his explanation as to why. For another, he has been so diligent in tracking down difficult-to-find images, which most readers will not even have known existed, much less how to get to see them, that he has left us in his debt for bringing them to light, whatever their “quality.”

Baigell adds an important thread to the expanding tapestry of writing on immigrant Jews, mostly from eastern Europe, between the time they arrived on these shores around 1880 and the slamming shut of the immigration door by the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. He examines their preoccupations as they sought to find their place in America both before and after that year. He has accomplished two services in his analysis. One, he has distilled in a concise manner both the gradual transition from a purely adorational view of the United States toward one more aware of and eventually critical of systemic American shortcomings, and the explanation of why and how those phases of engagement and the transition between them was accomplished. Two, he has mediated that broad discussion specifically through the visual arts, offering an unprecedented analysis of the artistic community—its individuals and its institutions—that was part of these developments.

Within this second contribution, through his intrepid research and analysis of the contents turned up by that research, he has offered a very important discussion of the Jewish role in political and sociopolitical cartoons, from almost the beginning of the century and continuing through the next several decades. He has astutely not wasted time comparing the aesthetic or any other value of, say, oil paintings versus prints, because for his narrative and the history that he is analyzing, that sort of question could not be more irrelevant. Instead he has offered an effective apercu into distinctions between formal, religious Judaism and informal, cultural (and linguistic, i.e., Yiddish-bound) Judaism. Both of these articulations of identity, in parallel but different ways, interweave the social and political concerns of Jewish artists, particularly in New York City. He explores how these artists came to direct themselves not only to American issues but also to issues back in the Old Country which many of them left behind not so long before.

The issue that is perhaps most pressing in the middle parts of his text is how and why so many of those figures whom he considers were drawn to communism. He (again) presents a concise and coherent analysis of how the movement appeared to American immigrant Jews when it first toppled the Romanov tsarist regime—from their pre-immigrant experiences of that regime and from communism’s apparent promise to eliminate anti-Semitism by redirecting prejudices from religion and ethnicity to socioeconomics and then eliminating the problematic of socioeconomics—and why the communist vision would be right for America. Equally important is his discussion of how that situation gradually changed with the rise to singular power of Joseph Stalin. He shows that some were quicker to recognize the flaws in the Soviet system while others hung onto their convictions well into World War II.

Embedded in this, in the context and aftermath of the Johnson-Reed Act and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler nine years later, and with him, the expansive shaping not only of Nazism in Germany but also of anti-Semitism in America, is an astute presentation of the struggle between those who favored and those who questioned the Soviet Union. Some saw the Soviet Union as the only power in the world that recognized and was willing to stand up to Nazi fascism—together with the conviction that fascism and capitalism were siblings, both of which needed to be pushed down through socialism and communism in order to facilitate the liberation of the proletariat from oppression and of Jews from anti-Semitism. Others saw the various aspects of this perspective as seriously flawed.

Throughout his narrative, the role of Jewish artists and art critics is an ongoing series of punctuation points, in which Baigell seeks beneath the surface of works of art to elicit the combination of Jewish and American or Jewish and socialist/communist concerns. One of the most effective examples of this is his discussion of William Gropper’s February, 1935, cover illustration for Der Hamer. In it, he observes how the seven-snake-headed hydra tattooed with swastikas not only offers the serpent as a consummate symbol of evil in the Jewish tradition, but in its sevenness also connotes that oldest of Jewish visual symbols, the seven-branched menorah “now taken over by the Nazis, its serpentine arms no longer in their usual elliptical or vertical positions” (p. 98).

Among the most important discussions, to my mind, are those that come up in the concluding chapter, pertaining to Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg and the ambiguous relationship that each had, in his own way, with Judaism—an ambiguity that informed and was informed by their convictions regarding what paintings should and should not be about (that is, they assert that it should be, as Baigell points out, about form and not about narrative content). I would perhaps go further than he in arguing that their ambivalence caused them to be blind to the narrative content that was present in the canonical chromaticist paintings of Barnett Newman and Marc Rothko; and that these works offer a kind of post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima secular messianic tikkun olam (repair of the world), the very thing that Baigell brings up at the end of his book.

This leads me, further, to three small criticisms of this volume. One, I was surprised that, when the author, in the first two pages of his introduction, asserts that very few art historians have touched on “the connections between religious heritage and radicalism” (p. 1), but mentions several exceptions, he does not cite my book, Fixing the World: American Jewish Painters in the Twentieth Century (2002), especially since he and I had corresponded about a footnote in it at the time. The theme of that book, as the title might suggest, is that tikkun olam is an idea underlying the work of American Jewish painters to an inordinate degree; while it does not emphasize radicalism it certainly moves in the direction that Baigell then charts out so masterfully. Two, given where his volume ends, and particularly given the important discussion of Greenberg and Rosenberg that spills over very much into the 1940s, I am curious why he subtitled the book 1880-1940 rather than 1880-1950. And third, the title itself is somewhat of a misnomer. Since he is wisely not trying to define American Jewish art, which raises a host of definitional questions that he does not address (nor does he need to address), American Jewish artists would have been more accurate.

These are really small quibbles with a text that is, in the end, a magnificent piece of work and an important contribution—essential, basic reading—for anyone interested in the period from the beginning of the Great Migration to the aftermath of World War II and the place of Jewish artists in shaping and responding to the American world during that era.

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Citation: Ori Z. Soltes. Review of Baigell, Matthew, Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. February, 2016. URL:

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