Rather than try and offer a statement that is either global or
regional what must be undertaken is an exercise that seeks to take up the
question of historical time - in its specificity as a thinking of modernity
- and yet try to argue at the same time that integral to any thinking of
modernity is the Shoah. Indeed it is possible to go further and argue that
with that occurrence what occurs is a state of affairs the results of which
- despite the nostalgia for completion and finality and despite the
sedulous hold of system - works to determine the actuality of the present.
Indeed while it will be difficult to maintain there is the further
implication that even the denial of this set up is a denial that is
conditioned by the occurrence itself. The conditioning occurs because of
the impossible possibility of any adequate incorporation. The failure of
incorporation marks and marks out the philosophical enterprise at the
If the position under consideration concerns on an abstract level
the strategy and structure of explanation why should that be linked to the
Shoah? Why is there this possible - in fact it will be necessary to go
further and describe it as ineliminable - link? Answering these questions
means recognising not only the necessary presence of tradition but the
existence of there being a problem concerning how that presence is to be
With the Shoah there is a bleak reality. It either forms part of
the West's tradition - albeit a dominant tradition - and is thus to be
thought in that tradition's terms, or its incorporation means that firstly
any argument concerning its specificity would turn out to be simply
illusory, and that secondly of what system would it form a part such that
it incoporation, or reincorporation would be unproblematic.
Within contemporary Jewish thought concerning the Shoah stages the
problem of how, given this occurrence, modernity is to be construed?
In Crisis and Covenant: Jewish Thought after the Holocaust Johnathan
Sacks attempts to position the divide within contemporary Judaism in the
Reflexions on the Shoah reveals two significant facts
about contemporary Jewish existence. the first is the
absence of a shared set of Jewish meanings which alone
might have allowed the Holocaust to be incorporated into
collective Jewish memory. For the religious believer, the
Holocaust conforms his faith; for the unbeliever it confirms
his lack of faith. For the radical it creates a novum in
history for the traditionalist it recalls earlier catastrophes.
For the pietist it testifies to God's suffering presence in the
world; for the secularist it proves His absence. These variant
readings have shown no tenancy to converge over time.
Having established this divide Sacks goes on to draw the practical
consequences of this division.
The fundamental divide is between those who see the
Holocaust as an unprecedented event which shatters our
understanding of the covenant, and those who insist that
the covenant survives intact even in the valley of the
shadow of death. Those who take the first view see
Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, as a seminal addition
to the Jewish calendar. Those who take the second see the
Holocaust as a new dimension in an ancient grief, such as
that expressed on the ninth of Av, the day of mourning for
the destruction of the temples.
In elementary terms what is involved here is a contrast between two days:
Yom ha-Shoah and Tisha ba'Av. Why would it be that these days were unlike
any other days?
Part of what seems to characterise a considerable amount of
contemporary writing on the question of Judaism - and thus the way in which
this Judaism figures within modernity - is a distinction that is repeatedly
drawn between Jews (i.e. actual Jews) and "jews"; the latter being a name
or marker for oppressed groups in general. Jean-Francois Lyotard in
Heidegger and The Jews formulates this distinction thus;
I use quotation marks to avid confusing these "jews" with real
Jews. What is most real about real Jews is that Europe, in
any case, does not know what to do with them: Christians
demand their conversion; monarchs expel them; republics
assimilate them; Nazis exterminate them. "The jews" are the
object of a dismissal with which Jews in particular, are afflicted
It is as though the presence of inevitable inequalities and actual
oppression means that au fond we are all potentially Jews. (The question of
who or what is actually designated by the "we" must in this instance remain
open.) This tendency of reusing the word Jew to mark a more generalised
site of oppression needs to given a particular setting. While the detail
involves a certain degree of complexity it remains the case that, in sum,
the setting is given by that position that ascribes to Jews and thus to
Judaism the status of victim. If the Jew is a victim - perhaps the victim
par excellence the it would then follow that to the extent that "we" are or
become victims then "we" are or will become "Jews".
While the basis of the identificatory move may be laudable and to
that extent justifiable. The identification is both with the oppressed and
then, as an implicit result, to identify all the oppressed. The twofold
move of identification will have consequences however that cannot be
justified. The most unequivocal detrimental consequence concerns the
necessity to identify the Jew as victim. On one level neither the history
of anti-semitism nor the reality of the Shoah can be denied. What is
damaging is that they become generalised within the history of oppression
and racial murder such that in the act of identification all victims seem
the same and each destructive act merely one more repetitive act in this
history of racial destruction. What will have vanished from these
encompassing manoeuvres is the specificity and the singularity of the acts
With the Shoah the denial of its singularity will on the one hand
become the denial of the specificity of the Jews as such and therefore, on
the other, the denial of the possibility that the Shoah can be taken as a
historical novum. In a more generalised consideration of Judaism and the
question of Jewish identity what is excluded is the possibility of an
affirmative conception of Jewish identity. The affirmative here would be
the identity located within Judaism itself. It needs to be stated
immediately that there will be neither a unified nor a resolved response
from with Judaism to the question of Jewish identity. What cannot be
avoided is the presence of another site of identity. What arises therefore
is the question of how to think this other possibility and its relation to
a more generalised questioning of identity? In sum what is the complexity
of identity? The urgency of the question arises because of the problems
inherent in the distinction between Jews and "jews".
The question of identity becomes the philosophical problem whose
incoporation into thefrealm of the historical works to determine both
anthropological question and one which pertain with equal force to
citzeship. It woud be in light of that already complex set up that the
specificity of identity will have to be played out.
The question here with the necessity to consider the possiblity of
Jewish art pertains to identity; perhaps more accurately it should be
described as pertaining to the identity in question; in other words to
identity as being always in question. Indeed as shall be argued throughout
the following what must be maintained here is that which could be described
as the specificity of the question: the unique determinations of
questioning. With the question a more complex temporality will have been
introduced. As a beginning therefore it is possible to start with the
question of identity. To ask whether or not there is such a thing as Jewish
art is to ask something about art and thus to ask a question about how its
internality and thus how its work is to be understood.
At the same time however this question will be linked to another
form of questioning. In this instance the questioning must pertain to
Judaism and specifically to the question of Jewish identity. (Again it will
be identity - the nature of identity inscribed within and thus being formed
by the question.) It will be in terms of Jewish identity that these
concerns can be given particularity. With that particularity it will then
be possible to take up the effective presence of specific themes within
paintings marked by the name Kitaj. While it is possible to identify a
period within his work as ostensibly Jewish in orientation and approach
what must be questioned is the extent to which that periodisation is
accurate after having made a decision both about identity and also about
the broader question of Jewish art.
On one level it must go without saying that there is such a thing
as Jewish art. There is a history of such art and its is not difficult to
name current and recent practionners within the area. The question of
course is what makes the art Jewish? Chagall's portrait of the Rabbi of
Vitebski - The Praying Jew - captures and expresses a form of orthodoxy. In
addition the portrait gathers around it a certain nobility. The pupil of
the Rabbi's left eye seems to swim. Its hold escapes. It brings a grip that
has become lose. The right eye however is focused. It holds. Within the
frame the viewer is neither held nor positioned for the Rabbi's face is
turned towards another. The difference between the eyes coupled with his
now grey beard bespeak the presence of inescapable vulnerability. And yet
even the vulnerable are strong when at prayer. Chagall's portrait has a
precarious strength; an interplay whose potentially contradictory force is
checked by nobility. Even in allowing for this nobility, becoming the
viewer of this painting is to become the viewer of a world that may seem to
have vanished. A dated quality inhabits the frame; a quality other than
nostalgia. Trying to place this quality will have to work in relation to
the frame. It is a quality that emerges in coming to the frame; in seeing
it. That seeing, the move that takes the frame over, taking it as given to
sight will always be informed. What informs causes and has caused the
quality of the frame's having become the past. The quality is time and yet
it is not a time that is straightforward. Time pertains neither to the age
of the portrait's ostensible subject nor to a universal and thus timeless
quality of human nature. Here there is the work of another time.
Why is there a dated quality? How does it come to be seen? How does
it pertain to the question of Jewish art? While these questions involve a
certain particularity their force will reside in what would be in play -
perhaps would have to be in play - in looking at ostensibly Jewish art -
art created and viewed in the European context - in the second half of the
20th century. It will be because of this geographical and temporal
determination that a dated quality seems to inhere in Chagall's portrait.
As has been suggested this quality resists nostalgia. It opens up another
and yet still essential determination. The determination is that which
informs viewing. It informs it assuming the displacement of the possibility
of nihilism. The latter being the complex weave of denial, forgetting and
an enforced normalisation. Nihilism will have to be rethought in terms of
the work of what, here, informs.
Time with and within the viewing of painting brings difficulties.
Painting as that which is thought to be spatial does, it would be argued,
preclude the determination of the temporal by maintaining the centrality of
space; the internal work of the framed. While there will be no attempt here
to give a direct answer to this difficulty a response will inhere in
developing what will be described as the Time of Viewing and the Time of
the Framed. It goes without saying that there is no absolute distinction
between these times. Indeed as they are developed what will emerge is, in
this instance, their necessary though complex relation. In regards to the
specific question of Jewish painting both questions will be mediated by the
history of iconoclasm. It will be fundamental here to incorporate the
relevant aspects of that history - the consequence of the prohibition
against representing God - into these two different times. This will ne
dome after setting them out.
What is intended by the time of viewing is neither historical nor
sociological, and yet it refers to the age. Age here means the present; the
place of viewing. What then is the time of this place? In sum what is the
present? Offering an answer to these questions must pertain to what is
given in order thought take place. This gift incorporates both the
possibility of thought - a possibility that inhabits the word tradition - a
well as that which is to be thought. The latter is history in its most
elementary form. The interrelationship between the two provide ways of
understanding the history of dominance.
Within a certain convention historical time is given universal
force such that every occurrence is both an occurrence in time and the
evidence of/and for that universality. Be it progress or Spirit each
particular event is contained within the universal. Within the framework of
such an argument particular already play a role; they already form a part.
There is a degree of comfort provided by such a conception of history.
What characterises the second half of the 20th century is the absence of
comfort; an absence that is harboured in the necessity for a renewal.
Part of what confronts thinking - part of what demands to be
thought is that the thinking of which is impossible within the framework
provided by the gift.
The question of singularity or uniqueness needs to be linked to the
relationship between universal and articular and thus the question to be
addressed is of what universal is/was the holocaust a particular?
With the time of the framed the complexity at work involves the
relationship between what is viewed and the viewing. Perhaps it would be
possible to begin with an analogy. The most apposite would be reading. With
reading that which is read takes on a specific temporal form. It is the
temporality of narrative. Exploring this area of time provides a way into
the specificity of painting; in particular the specificity of figurative
painting - a painting that is often confused with narrative.
Asking the question of Jewish art now will depend upon how the Now
is understood. Therefore to what extent the Now is thought such that it is
affirmed - affirmation here being neither celebration nor approval - within
the work of painting.
Part of the history of iconoclasm is that in the absence of
Judaism's giving to itself an image - of representing itseklf in relation
to the divine - it was given a representation. It was represented.
The consequences of this is that it allows for a specific and at
time pragamatic distinction to be drawn betaeen the identity of being a Jew
and Jewish being.
Situating these general points in relation to Kitaj is neither
straightforward nor problematic. It is a question rather of tracing the way
certain works work. What has been set up above is not a criterion of
aesthetic judgement in an abstract sense it is an attempt to set up the
condition for Jewish art now. It will be an art the incorporates -
positively or negatively - the current particularity of Jewish Being.