Anti -Semitic Art
Between legitimate expression and hatred
From aboriginal cave paintings in Australia to multimillion dollar movies produced in Hollywood, humans have always found a way of expressing themselves beyond words. Colours, sounds, structures and symbols combine to tell a story. But the stories don’t always have a fairytale ending, not every piece of art is suitable for children to view, and some are actually works of hate and incitement.
Works of art are a diverse range of human activities, and the products of those activities, usually involving imaginative or technical skill. In their most general form, these activities include the production of works of art, the criticism of art, the study of the history of art, and the aesthetic dissemination of art. What happens when the line between expression and hatred is crossed?
Art influences our opinion
Art is generally understood as any activity or man-made product, with a communicative or aesthetic purpose—something that expresses an idea, an emotion or, more generally, a world view.
It is a component of culture, reflecting economic and social substrates in its design. It transmits ideas and values inherent in every culture across space and time. Its role changes through time, acquiring more of an aesthetic component here and a socio-educational function there.
Art is a metaphor for any expression, idea and belief. Art is away to sand massage with no words. When we come across one piece of art, we come across an entire world. Therefore, art is a direct way to influence opinion and ideological thought.
The use of art as an expression of ideology
Art can be a social agent for political ideologies and propaganda. Rayen & Kellner (1990) investigated the art of cinema in representation of ideologies and political manners in their book Film, Politics and Ideology. In this book, the researchers claim that the art of cienema is highly connected to global political processes in Western society. The art of film, or any art in that manner, is a medium for social thought on the human reality in subjects of religion, social economics, war, race, ideologies, sex and gender.
In this article I will discuss anti-semitism in the art of painting before World War II (from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and the 20th century), the propaganda of the third Reich and the modern use of anti-semitic art. At the end of the article, I will discuss the barrier between freedom of speech, and the use of art for ideologies of hate.
Anti-semitism in the art of painting before World War II
Professor Bernard (2015) claims that artists during the Renaissance stripped Jesus, his messengers and his family of their Jewish roots. Bernard claims that removing his Jewish identity is an anti-Semitic act, and a distortion of biblical history.
This claim by Bernard, is an example where we see the connection between religion, ideology and art. We see how one religion can use the medium of art to influence the minds, beliefs and emotions of its believers. The fact that Jesus was stripped of his Jewish identity in many paintings, shows us how important it was for the Christians in that era to be different than the Jewish community. What better way to differentiate Christians from Jews than the use of visual art?
Another example of anti-semitic ideology using art, can be seen in the Renaissance manifestation of the Jewish character, a manifestation that lingered until modern and post modern times of Western society.
When Bernard spoke about “the Jewish character”, he was referring to Jesus at first and afterwards to Jewish people in general. When we think about Jesus, we usually picture a Caucasian man with broad shoulders, light brown hair and beard. This representation of Jesus in our mind, is influenced by the Renaissance Christianity that had stripped Jesus from his Middle Eastern appearance. This, Bernard claimed, was an act of ancient anti-semitism.
Bernard claims that Christianity did not appear by itself. It was connected to the Jewish religion. A connection that had been seized by the Renaissance anti-semitic art. This distortion of biblical history created by art, continued for hundreds of years, contributing towards the separation of Jews and Christians, while spreading the ideology of Jewish hatred for decades to come.
One of the most common forms of Jewish hatred is the demonization of the Jewish character. This is still common in modern social media. To prove that the Renaissance separation of Jesus from his Jewish roots was an anti-semitic act, Bernard mentioned another apparent form of anti-semitism, the demonization of the Jewish character. As mentioned in “The Dark Mirror”, a book by Sara Lipton, who studied anti-Jewish iconography of Renaissance art.
Today, it is common to believe that there is no connection between art history and ideology. Both, Bernard and art historian, Sara Lipton oppose this belief. They each prove throughout their work, that Renaissance art was indeed anti-semetic.
Art historian, Lipton claims in her book – Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish – that the representation of the Jewish character in Christian art, from the Middle ages until the Renaissance was filled with anti-semitic ideology. This anti-semetic art, they claim, was responsible for Jewish hatred and persecution.
Lipton claims that in the thousand years that followed the crucifixion, there was no difference between Jewish characters from the Old Testament, and Christian characters in the New Testament. This Similarity between the characters in art changed in the Middle ages. Artists began to differentiate between Jews and Christians by using stereotypical symbols of Jewish people: Pointed hats, crocked noses and beards.
The reason there is a big difference between Christian and Jewish characters, according to Lipton, lies in the desire to break away from Judaism, and for Christianity to be an independent and superior religion. This desire for Christianity to transcend Judaism, was promoted by priests who spread the idea that the Jews were blind to the prophecies of their religion (the coming of the Messiah). They believed that the true Messiah came in the form of Jesus Christ. For this reason, according to Lipton, the art of Middle ages and Renaissance showed the blindness of the Jewish religion to the true faith of Christianity.
Anti-semitism in art, during the Middle ages, created a barrier between the Jewish and Christian communities in Europe. Pointy hats and beards were symbols of differentiation between Jews and Christians, even though historically, Jewish people did not look like this.
This hatred of Jews, Worsened in the 12 century across Europe, by demonizing the Jewish nation. The art of that era portrayed the Jewish people as Christianity’s worst enemy, and created a model of Jewish men, woman and children as monsters.
Anti-semitism in art, in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries
The strongest anti-semetic propaganda was during World War II, during the 20th century. The Nazi ideology wasn’t against Judaism as a religion, but against Jews as a race. (For more information on the Nazi ideology, please read the linked article Nazi ideology).
Even though Nazi propaganda wasn’t a direct work of art, but a mean of cheap publication (using mostly flyers, posters and newspaper cartoons), this was a modern example of demonization of the 20th century Jew. (For more information of the third Reich propaganda, please read the linked article Nazi propaganda).
Something that strongly influenced anti-semetic propaganda during the third Reich, was a documentary called “The eternal Jew” (1937). This film was used to spread the Nazi ideology against the Jewish people. The movie showed documentary footage of the Jewish population in Nazi occupied Poland. Similar to the Jewish demonization that Occurred during the 12th century across Europe (which used the art of painting to show the ugliness of the Jewish society), the movie accomplished this by using the art of cinema. (For more information on the movie and book, please read the linked article, the eternal Jew book, the eternal Jew movie.
Modern anti-semitism and art
When we think about anti-semitism, sometimes we think about it in the past tense, which would means that anti-semitism no longer exists. It would mean that Jewish hatred disappeared, and no longer exists. However, in the post modern era of the 21st century, there was an uprising of direct anti-semitism across the globe. The post-modern manifestation of the anti-Jewish ideology is the world-wide demonization of Jews. This demonization is similar to the demonization in the Middle ages. The only difference is that today’s hatred is spread much easier and faster, with the use of the internet and social media. (For further reading of modern anti-semitism, please read the linked article modern anti Semitism)
As mentioned before, one of the most efficient ways, used to spread anti-semitism in the Middle ages and renaissance was art. Today’s art, in forms of painting, sculptures, cartoons, movies and more, are contributing to anti-semitism. Furthermore, in modern art, Jewish artists are persecuted for their ethnicity. Their art is sometimes destroyed because of their Jewish identity. To conclude, I would like to address two cases of anti-semitism in modern art. One is the artwork of a Jewish artist, which was destroyed by anti-semitic graffiti. The other, is a Jewish sculpture who planted anti Semitic sentences in his art.
The British Indian sculpture Anish Kapoor who has Jewish roots, created a statue named “The Queen Vagina”. This sculpture is very famous, and was covered many times in the French media because of the statue’s location (The statue is placed in the gardens of King Louis XIV’s palace). This famous statue was vandalized by graffiti artists, who sprayed anti-semitic sentences across the statue. Kapoor, who didn’t succumb to the hatred, responded by covering the statue with golden leafs. He didn’t remove the sentences, in order to highlight intolerance in today’s society. (more details on the story)
Other example is in the story of artist Jaume Plensa. Plensa created a statue called “Spillover II”. The statue, which is located in a suburb of Milwaukee, is of a man sitting. The man is made out of many English letters. One day, while visiting in town, a New Jersey blogger came across the statue and noticed that some of the letters created anti-semitic sentences. The blogger, full of rage, wrote about his experience and created a mass internet response, which eventually caused the reliving of the statue.
What does this mean?
While doing research for his book, Professor Bernard interviewed an art history professor. Bernard was shocked to hear his response, “There is no connection between ideology history and art, art is art”. This claim caused Bernard to research even deeper for anti-semitic ideology in renaissance art. This claim by the art history professor is why it’s so important not to accept art as art. With critical thinking, we can search for hidden ideologies, because art is definitely more than just art, and definitely more than freedom of speech. Museum exhibits and images of Facebook – all contain messages, not all are positive. Sometimes art is life itself, so we need to embrace the beauty of expression and accept the barrier between hatred ideology and freedom of speech. Never will we accept anti-semetic art.
Written by Ynon Mager