"No, I did not", I replied. I was surprised at the strength of my reaction to the term. Yes I was Jewish and yes, I was an artist, but a Jewish artist didn’t feel like a comfortable label. Keep in mind I am not fond of labels in general as they narrow one’s universe rather than expand it. I’ve found the Artists’ Lab to be a fascinating project and it has caused me to evaluate concepts around the creative process from new perspectives. And yet, the label did not feel like it belonged on me.
"Did others consider me a Jewish artist?" she asked. The work I have done over the past seven years has been on my Jewish family history, the Holocaust and an interview series of Jewish elders. Hmm, probably they do. I asked my husband if he would describe me as a Jewish artist and he replied yes. As someone who isn’t Jewish he views the Jewish part of my identity as a significant descriptor, more so than it would be were I Christian. He argues that it wraps in culture and ethnicity, that one can be Jewish and non-religious, but if one claims to be Christian, one is religious. The content of my recent work is Jewish culture, therefore he views me as a Jewish artist.
Interestingly when I posed the question to my mother she responded no. To her I’m just Susan and she has seen me through enough life stages to understand that I can be interested in something without it necessarily defining me.
So what does being a “Jewish artist” mean and why do I struggle with the term? I certainly define myself as Jewish, albeit not in a particularly religious sense, and I do identify with the cultural aspects and values of Judaism. In part I think it implies a level of religious engagement which isn’t me. I find religion an interesting subject as something that has informed our culture. It is a rich source to mine and offers me another artistic engine. And I do have a particular interest in the religion and culture that is my heritage. It occurs to me that this is not just a recent interest although it lay dormant for many years. As a young college student I took many courses on religion, even a wonderful English course on the Bible as literature. As a child I was captivated by mythology. I was intrigued with how people try to make sense of the world around them, a rather amazing place whatever your religious beliefs. But a curious artist might be a better descriptor than a Jewish artist.
I want to be free to wake up tomorrow and go in a different direction with my work if I choose and it may not have a theme that relates to the fact that I'm Jewish. When we nail down the tent poles that define our identity it is much too easy to trap ourselves within. I need to define my world broadly enough to allow for a lifetime of exploration.
*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.