A reader sent me this link about Robert Frank and Jewish photographers. The Jewish part is something I have thought about, and I think it’s aptly explained in the essay. There’s also a link to a film called Pull My Daisy which Frank co-directed.
Yes, being a Jew has placed a critical distance between myself and this society. I suppose it began early on when I was picked on by the local Irish kids. I can remember some of these young kids throwing rocks at me when I was leaving a local Jewish school (I didn’t attend Jewish School but some of my friends did). And I was involved in fights with these kids nearly every day. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. It didn’t matter. I was a target, and I wasn’t sure why.
One day I was caught by a few of them and hung by my feet over a churchyard wall where there was a ten foot drop. Somehow I squirmed out of their hold and got back on solid ground.
When I went to college, a guy that I played cards with asked if he could see the top of my head. His parents had told him that Jews had the stump of horns in their hair. I hadn’t heard that one before but I let him look away and he was surprised that the top of my head was pretty much like his. He had just never seen a Jew, and believed what he was told. We remained good friends.
And of course, if there was any doubt about how the world felt about us, there was the holocaust. I knew that the Jews were blamed for the death of Christ – but even that never made much sense to me. I used to ask my own father why would G-d have picked a Jew to be his son in the first place since he must’ve known all this was going to happen. And if He didn’t know what was going to happen, then he was a G-d with limited powers. The religious thing is still puzzling to me. Many Jews that survived the holocaust continued to believe in Him. And skim briefly over the holocaust, how could the U.S. have turned away ships of Jewish emigrates, or that the great liberal Roosevelt did nothing to make the trip to the death camps more difficult for the Nazis. The artist, whatever their cultural identification doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The sense of otherness that individual artists feel, can only be amplified by such social alienation.
And I’m not sure if there’s agreement – to this day – on whether Jewishness is a religion, a race, a culture or what. Seems to be all three. Jews from Eastern Europe are subject to genetic diseases that others from Eastern Europe are not subject to. So obviously there’s a genetic influence. I wasn’t brought up to believe in G-d, but I we did celebrate the Jewish Holidays. The bible stories were seen as important fables, but not actual events.
Suppose you’re reading your favorite author at the time and everytime a Jew is described, it”s this evil stereotyped version, and you go on to find out that indeed Thomas Wolfe was very anti-Semitic. Or that Ezra Pound was a fascist. For me, I go past that to the writing and just recognize it as ignorant. The artist is certainly not free of the prejudices of the society where they grew up.
At any rate, the Frank post does give a similar explanation for why so many Jews ended up in the arts, i.e. alienation – and I can’t really disagree, though there are other factors. Probably the biggest one being that the arts, the written word, in short education, was always seen as the way out.
My parents played records about the lives of artists and musicians for me as I went to sleep. I can still remember the swell of dramatic music when Franz Liszt dies.
But I do think that this combination of culture and alienation from contemporary society is a big part of why so many Jews wind up as comedians, artists, writers photographers, movie-makers, etc. And it also explains why so much of their artistic output is urban. That’s the territory we both know, and are alienated from at the same time.
So we’re alienated. We’re outsiders. Of all the arts, why photography? Photography, by it’s scientific nature, is an easy way of documenting society. The ironic juxtaposition of subjects, one of the main techniques in city photography – is a way of saying: Did you ever notice how…
Yes, it’s the Seinfeld line. It’s the stand-up comedians take on things in two dimensions.
POSTSCRIPT. I may be writing about Jews, and my own experiences, but there is a universal point about being part of the Other that I’m circling around. I am not an art historian, but for a parallel example, you could look at the development of “the blues” in music. It didn’t suddenly appear in a vacuum but can be traced back through blacks in the south, back through slave songs, back to African styles. It doesn’t mean that only blacks can sing the blues (though let’s leave Pat Boone out of this for now) – but that certain art forms develop as an outlet in an insular culture that has it’s own culture, and is separated by prejudice from the mainstream culture. In short, artists are already by their nature a minority in their own society, and this sense of being apart is further amplified by the otherness of the minority culture they were born into. It’s not the only influence on an artist, but it is a big one.