Ben Schachter is in many ways a “kosher cartographer.” As a Jewish artist widely known for his depictions of eruv maps, Schachter’s paper projects depict boundaries stitched in blue thread with the remaining portions painted with acrylic.
Functionally, Schachter’s contoured creations operate similarly to their representations in that they offer assistance. While an eruv, through its symbolic status, permits activities traditionally forbidden on the Sabbath, Schachter’s art enables conversation and understanding of a space and topic that is ironically nebulous and often misunderstood.
To date, observers and learners have enjoyed the artist’s works via exhibitions at the Youngstown (Ohio) Area Jewish Federation Art Gallery; the Yeshiva (N.Y.) University Museum; the Yale University Institute for Sacred Music; the American Jewish Museum in Pittsburgh; and, most recently, the Jerusalem Biennale 2017.
Despite having long established a relationship with viewers, Schachter’s current creation is aimed at an alternative audience, primarily readers.
In “Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art,” Schacter touches upon the subject of skillfully crafted eruv maps; however, the new 176-page work is largely a tip of the hat to his other profession, namely scholar.
Apart from a recognizable eruv tracer, Schachter is professor of fine arts at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.
Within “Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art,” the author situates himself within the realm of art critics. With an opening chapter that recapitulates traditional theories of Jewish art criticism, Schachter sets the stage for a text that is less a coffee table art book than an art book that is read while drinking coffee.
As both a practitioner and expert in contemporary Jewish art, Schachter explores the failings of prior critics in dealing with art “unconcerned with images.”
Whether appropriately or not, past scholarship has been too entwined with the biblical prohibition, as stated in the Second Commandment, of producing graven images. But what happens when art exists beyond this understanding of imagery? What should we make of Jewish art that is not devotional, used in religious rituals or even illustrates Jewish customs, asks Schachter.
A new critical method for grappling with such pieces is necessary, he claims, and this fresh approach must “be able to examine action and process and balance the critical gaze currently overdetermined by the image.” Guided by another biblical text, the Fourth Commandment — keeping of the Sabbath — this tactic, Schachter proposes, would establish an “alternative to the Second Commandment as the foundation for Jewish art criticism” and successfully expand such critiques by balancing “image with action.”
Much of Schachter’s text goes on to substantiate this point through explications and definitions as well as share lessons that Judaism can offer regarding contemporary art.
Early in the work Schachter explains that “action is at the heart of this inquiry.” That statement, along with the claim that the book is “for everyone who wants to learn more about Judaism and art, religion and art, and art criticism” are both truthful and thoughtful statements. Schachter’s work may be deliberately aimed at all, however its narrative construction obfuscates such goal.
At its heart, “Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art” provides an insightful and understandable analysis of traditional theory and presents new means for considering contemporary art; however, an even broader audience may have benefited from the inclusion of more visual representations.
The inclusions of Ken Goldman’s “Chevrutah” and “With Without,” Ben Schachter’s “Instant Eruv” and Archie Rand’s “The 613” offered visual cues for referencing the author’s textual claims. For those less versed in the subject, additional “images” may have eased understanding.
Nevertheless, the book is a meritorious work both for amalgamating past scholarship and for furthering the field as it relates to contemporary art. Much like the author, who is an expert in allowing viewers to see something new in a recognizable boundary, “Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art” creates fresh space in a seemingly stationary setting. PJC
Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art by Ben Schachter, 176 pages
Publisher: Penn State University Press; 1 edition (November 17, 2017)
$34.95 | Paperback Edition
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz