Art, The Museum and Jewish Education

  • by: Marion Gribetz

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Sivan 5748, pp. 26-27. Appears here with permission.

Much thought has been given to how art and education can interact. The pivotal question which must be considered in any analysis of their linkage is: what happens when one encounters art? Does the encounter provoke the thought process? An encounter can take various forms. It can be hearing a beautiful piece of music, reading a novel, seeing a movie or viewing a painting. It is that encounter, that educational experience, which concerns the art educator
The current work of art educators is defined by two parameters: (a) arts education and (b) art and education.
The arts education approach takes into account the importance of actually experimenting with art. These include the art teachers and museum educators who encourage plastic creativity in students. The art and education people believe that art is essential to learning and should be integrated into the curriculum. This includes studying about great works of art, viewing art and the use of creative projects in the service of other subject matter.
Whereas the advocates of art education look at the creative act itself as being broadening and educational, those who promote art and education take a larger view of the role that art can play. They look at art as an integral part of our society which our educational system must include in shaping student thinking. This includes studying the lives of artists and the development of schools of art.
But what about art in and of itself? Is art a subject matter which can be approached like history or biology? Is there something unique about learning through art?
Art conveys that which the artist loves. Art is a totally subjective discipline. Each artist chooses the subject matter, the themes and motifs that are meaningful to him/her. Each chooses to paint, dance, sing, or write about that which he or she feels deeply. There are no scientific truths in art. As Reuven Rubin, the Israeli artist, says, “I paint what I love – my family, my country, my people.”
Jewish education strives for a shared identity and continuity for the Jewish people. Art can help convey those feelings and ideas which have been, and continue to be, important to Jews throughout the ages. It may take the form of a family portrait that provides insight into Jewish historical events, or Biblical themes which speak to us today in universal terms. Valued objects that are created by folk artists or commissioned from fine craftsmen also provide an historical glimpse at communal and individual observances.
By presenting great art, viewed as expressions of the artists’ love, we challenge the viewer to seek the reason for that love and provide an opportunity to be moved by it.
Not all art, however, is about loving relationships. In the modern era, art can be an expression of overpowering, even ghastly emotions. Tumarkin, Ardon, Tartakover, Gershuni, Lipchitz, were all deeply moved by political and/or military events of historical Jewish significance in the twentieth century. By looking for meaning through art, the events of recent history, which may be beyond comprehension when described only by the written word, are brought into a focus which encourages one’s own understanding and interpretation. Exposure to this art can help one move beyond understanding, even to revulsion leading to inner strength. Tumarkin’s works are grotesque and yet they help one cope with the events of Israeli reality. Art can lead to activism. In all too many Jewish settings the Holocaust has become the focal point for community identification. How can we go beyond the tragic, the horrendous, the mournful and move to a positive, action oriented Jewish life? We can be so repulsed by certain images that we strive to make the world a better place. Goya was able to achieve this with his paintings of the May massacres, as was Picasso with his Guernica, as have many film makers and writers. Certainly Hemingway with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms inspired individuals to dramatic changes.
In modern times artists have often been the harshest social critics and have done the reverse of propaganda – they encourage viewers to judge for themselves. A truly great artist not only provokes the student (i.e. viewer) to identify with and experience his/her emotions, but challenges one to translate those feelings into a workable framework for living. In addition to art’s role as a study point for understanding historic events and as a social motivator, art works have served as a focus for meditation and spirituality.
Icons were historically placed in patrons’ homes as well as in chapels to encourage concentration on the other worldly. The earliest known Jewish art, In the Dura Europas synagogue, was meant to convey messages of inspiration and spirituality, not just as decoration. Shvittis (traditional Sephardic wall hangings) in synagogues, as well, were placed to guide one through a spiritual lesson prior to prayer.
What then can one expect from encounters with art for Jewish education?
Exhibits in themselves should be educational. Those planning the exhibit should remember that it should be a self contained experience, since the majority of visitors are “drop-ins” without opportunity for pre-visit or post-visit preparation. Therefore, the educational experience must take place during the time spent in the exhibit. Museums must present their objects in ways which stimulate curiosity and inquisitiveness. Accessibility does not necessarily mean that the visitor must touch the object. It must be presented in a manner in which it can be approached, observed, and understood.
Teachers should remember that a museum is not a lecture hall. A slide examination in a traditional classroom might prove more useful for the careful analysis of an object section by section. The experience of being in the presence of an object is the primary value of the museum visit. Artistic objects can, by themselves, be teachers. But limits are important. No visit should be so taxing as to fatigue the visitor by prolonged object analysis. The goal of a visit should be to manipulate oneself in relation to an object and bring the object for the visitor, thus raising new and exciting questions about it.
Educators must assist the visitors in honing their skills of observation and visual learning. Teaching art and craft techniques can provide an opportunity for the visitors to manipulate themselves in relation to the works. Understanding how an object is made, the components of the object and the alternatives for creating the object can bring the student to greater understanding.
An example might be a spice box. Displaying a beautiful and rare spice box will impress the visitor with its beauty. Smelling spices used in various communities opens the experience up to another of the senses. Examining the materials from which the spice box is created and experimenting with them can lead to further understanding. Providing the visitor with a variety of options for creating the spice box stimulates the imagination to the possibilities of creating an object to be used. Experimenting in these ways encourages the visitor to create beyond the exhibit. The beautiful spice box is no longer a rare object behind glass; it now communicates and educates all who encounter it.
Experience of this sort should not be limited to children, either those who visit museums in school groups or those who attend special workshops of the museum. A museum must serve all its visitors effectively by meeting their needs and levels. Whether by creating exhibits at eye level for three year olds, or wording the labels at a fourth grade reading level, children’s museums have long understood this imperative. Social science research confirms the fact that most American Jews have attained high levels of education, yet they have, by and large, not continued their Jewish education beyond very elementary levels. In addition, visual learning has not received much attention. Visual learning cannot be a miming of literary learning. The techniques of one are not necessarily transferable to the other. Jewish museums must be prepared to serve a public that is sophisticated and highly intelligent in areas other than Jewish awareness.
These are just preliminary thoughts about the role of art education. Educational leaders in the Jewish community must begin to grapple with the fact that all education need not take place within the structures which exist today, but rather look towards harnessing other appropriate resources such as theater, literature and fine arts for the educational good of the entire community.

MARION GRIBETZ is the Director of Cultural Arts for the South Area Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston. She recently completed three years as a Jerusalem Fellow where she researched and worked on issues concerning Jewish education and the fine arts.