Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Political Art and the Art of Politics: Arthur Szyk and More in the Golden City

Hey! Have you been following my new 'all things Yidd-ish' column over at Tablet? It's called, in all modesty, Rokhl's Golden City and it's a lot of fun, if I do say so myself.

This week I talk a bit about a 'new to me' made for TV movie, the 1959 Jazz Singer with Jerry Lewis. It's really interesting and SHORT and you should definitely immediately watch it before Yom Kippur.

I also touch on a new show over at the New-York Historical Society, Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art. As I say in my column:
"Szyk’s art is a gorgeous mix of medieval detail and modern themes and deserves to be seen up close and personally."
But there's so much more to the exhibit than getting up close with Szyk's breathtaking artistry. In an exhibit filled with incredible work, Szyk’s Zionist pieces are some of the most compelling, like Palestine Restricted (on the restriction of Jewish emigration into Palestine) and Modern Moses, a startlingly contemporary composition on Hebrew machismo, one that could easily be a 2017 IDF selfie.

In her review of the show, Alexandra Pucciarelli poses an intriguing question: why is it that a once ubiquitous talent such as Szyk is “barely remembered” today? Pucciarelli suggests ill timed family interference with Szyk’s artistic estate as well as Szyk’s position in between artistic movements and schools.

Szyk was an unclassifiable, multifarious cultural figure. A Polonized Jew with a strong affinity for his homeland, as well as traditional Jewish life and culture, he left Poland to join the Western European community of artists. Yet, he always identified as a ‘Jewish artist’- something controversial for Jewish artists even today. I’d argue that the urgent, unsentimental Jewishness of his art might have made his work uncomfortable for the gatekeepers of mid-century modern art, many of them highly assimilated Jews themselves.

And then there’s Szyk’s politics. Szyk was a passionate Zionist, a member of the Revisionist Zionist Bergson Group, even, yet his Jewish work (insofar as it’s featured at the N-YHS) never devolved into easy, simplistic binaries like muscle Jew vs victim, old Jew vs. new. (Don't get me wrong, muscle Jews and un-muscle Jews are there, they're just not being used in self-abnegating didactic tropey ways.)  It’s been a while, but perhaps now more than ever is the moment for the reclamation of a binary busting artist like Arthur Szyk.

That binary is the text, subtext and Ur-text of the outsize new collection of the comics of Eli Valley, Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel. Valley’s work, a lovingly grotesque style of satire, has no truck with the undecided. As Peter Beinart writes in the foreword, “Eli Valley’s cartoons are outrageous and absurd. That’s because we’re living at an outrageous and absurd moment in American Jewish life.” If you don’t already think both Israel and the US are being led by their own respective absurdities, you probably aren’t the audience for Diaspora Boy. For Valley, contemporary Zionism, and its enabling by American Jewish leaders, is a modern Golem run amok, something he makes gloriously, repulsively graphic in his cartooning.

Valley’s unsparing art hasn’t gone unnoticed by its targets. A particularly sharp cartoon featuring then ADL head Abe Foxman resulted in the Forward severing its relationship with Valley. In a recent interview Valley has said “That kind of McCarthyism is an enduring feature of the Jewish community. ...It’s support Israel or else, but without open discourse the Jewish community loses. We need to be questioning the accepted truths of the Jewish world."

Valley is right- intra-communal Jewish politics has always been a no-holds barred, at times exceedingly ugly, affair. It might be worthwhile to ask what politics had to do with whether or not Arthur Szyk's artistic legacy endured. Perhaps today it’s easier to reclaim him as a cultural figure now, when his politics have been sanitized by the decades since his death.

Consider: Szyk was a prominent member of the Irgun-associated Bergson Group. Many in the mainstream Jewish institutional world did all they could to oppose the Group’s larger than life cultural and political actions. Preferring quiet diplomacy, some Jewish leaders pressed the US government to have Bergson himself deported. “Nahum Goldman, co-chair of the World Jewish Congress, told State Department officials in 1944 that Rabbi Stephen Wise regarded Bergson as “equally as great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler” because he believed Bergson’s activities would increase antisemitism in the United States.” If only Godwin’s Law had been invented a few decades early.

History is complicated. It’s easy to get swept away by the romance of the Bergson Group. Its spectacles like We Will Never Die cried out for Europe’s Jews at a time when President Roosevelt was doing his best to sweep the Jewish refugee crisis under the rug. At the same time, the Irgun was, among other things, responsible for the infamous 1946 King David hotel bombing, an act of terrorism which killed 91.

But to accuse Jews of creating anti-Semitism (as has been said of Peter Bergson, and Valley, and indeed countless other Jews who have taken unpopular positions and voiced uncomfortable truths) is an insulting absurdity, one which absolves those responsible for Jew hatred in the first place.