Contemporary Jewish artist Ben Schachter highlighted the tension between Jewish beliefs and artistic endeavors at his talk, entitled “Becoming a Jewish Artist: What is Gained? What is Lost?” Schachter, who is a professor of visual art at Saint Vincent College and the author of the 2017 book Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art, first discussed his early exposure to art: Pollock’s “Number” 1 painting at the New York Museum of Modern Art piqued young Schachter’s interest in art and planted the seed for inquisition into what constitutes creative work. By exploring the works of other Jewish artists, including Allan Kaprow, Schachter introduced the concept of action in art, a concept that would come to define his art later in life.
Schachter then turned the Torah’s second commandment, which prohibits idolatry and has been interpreted to include the creation of representative art. Schachter, however, looked to the definition of work to find room for creation in the Jewish faith. While discussing avodah, which Schachter defined as labor, and melachah, the Hebrew word for creation, Schachter concluded that the work Sabbath demands rest from includes creation.
“God created for six days and then rested [during the Sabbath],” Schachter said. “We should do the same.”
Schachter analyzed the subject matter of contemporary Jewish artists, which he contends is often the recreation of traditional Jewish images. The artist included many of Ken Goldman’s works in this discussion, finding his kippah-shaped hair to be an especially amusing piece, as it was a response to the criticism that a Jewish man should remove his kippah while in the studio.
Schachter introduced the audience to his own works: They focus on the drawing of eruvs, or enclaves constituted of various barriers and openings that expand the privacy of Jewish homes to the public sphere. Schachter draws the eruvs of various cities, including that of Chestnut Hill, using blue thread and white paper. This concept is especially important on the Sabbath, during which time religious Jews do not carry items between buildings unless they are enclosed by an eruv.
Schachter concluded his presentation with a discussion of what is gained and what is lost in becoming a Jewish artist. According to Schachter, creating Jewish art has gifted him greater knowledge of Jewish texts and friendship with those who share his profession. Schachter recognizes that contemporary Jewish art is not able to reach as broad an audience as secular contemporary art, stating his work would not be suitable for museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art.
“My pool is small, but it is very engaged,” Schachter said.
Featured Image by Kaylie Ramirez / Heights Editor