Social Concerns and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940. By Matthew Baigeil. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015. xiv + 262 pp.
In his latest study of Jewish American art, Matthew Baigell addresses the work of socially conscious artists by exploring the complex interplay of "Jewish particularism and ... universalist intentions" during the pivotal sixty-year period between 1880 and 1940 (5). In a series of five closely related, chronologically arranged essays, the author explores the evolution of social and political imagery based on the premise "that social concern can be considered an aspect of the cultural and religious heritage of Jewish American artists who trace their roots to eastern Europe" (12). He focuses primarily but not exclusively on mass media ephemera, often in the form of cartoons that were published in Jewish magazines and newspapers. The immediacy and brevity of the messages, coupled with the impossibility of reconstructing their distribution and readership, are challenges faced by anyone who investigates the history of printed media; thus, Baigell's ambitious efforts to rediscover and elucidate this sort of material are commendable. As he explains at the outset, some of the illustrations are lower in quality because they "were downloaded from microfilm copies of old journals and newspapers" or "photographed directly from journals and newspapers [that] were sometimes marred by creased and yellowed pages" (xiv). Despite these difficult circumstances, the reproductions are more than sufficient.
Baigell first discusses a number of images that pertain to the mass migration of Jews from eastern Europe. He identifies four basic categories of illustrations, such as general cartoons that "present the benefits of socialism without describing the specific ways to bring it about" and those "that combined socialist themes with biblical, Talmudic, and liturgical references" (46, 53). Most are found in the Yiddish language newspapers Di Arbayter Tsaytung, Di Tsukunft, and Der Groyer Kundes. In two examples, the illustrations contain English inscriptions, each of which was probably appropriated from "an English magazine, apparently a common occurrence" (44). Although the author cursorily addresses these borrowings, they probably merit further investigation.
The unillustrated second chapter addresses the ideas of Karl Marx, the art critic Saul Raskin, Dr. John Weichsel (who founded the People's Art Guild in 1915)...