February 3, 2023

Ben Schachter on Funding Jewish Art

To the Editors:

I felt deja vu while reading “How Funders Shape Jewish Culture.” About 15 years ago, I arranged a roundtable involving an art critic and an art historian of Jewish art. One man defined the subject broadly and the other simply stated that a work was Jewish if it involved Jewish texts. Here we are having the same conversation between two funders! 

But there is something even more important than a definition of Jewish art. Does the art enrich Judaism, Jewish history and culture?

Mem Bernstein and Shayna Rose Triebwasser shared their views on why they support Jewish Art. I agree with Ms. Bernstein’s view. “Jewish culture,” she said, “is anything that’s tethered to Jewish text and Jewish heritage.” But more importantly, and only briefly mentioned is what that art tries to do. “Can you support artists who might criticize the very thing you are trying to promote?” the interviewer asked. Ms. Triebwasser said that art “complicates narratives.” Ms. Bernstein gently disagreed. Jewish art, if it is to be Jewish, should engage Jewish texts and promote and celebrate the thing it is about.

I have been fortunate in my artistic career. My work has been selected for exhibition and review throughout the United States and in Israel. Yet, I have no doubt that I have limited my audience because my work is tethered to Jewish texts and ideas. Even more, I have withdrawn from exhibitions and not submitted my work to others because it is clear that the artwork would be used to not only complicate but advance narratives that harm Israel’s reputation and weaken relationships between Jews.

Ben Schachter

Pittsburgh, PA