Q. Is Judaism anti-art?
A. First a reminiscence. Some years ago I was one of the judges for the Blake Prize for religious art. A newspaper columnist asked: What does this rabbi know about art? What does any rabbi know about art? The chairman of the prize committee had to write to the paper saying that the other judges felt that my contributions to discussion were valuable. Fortunately the columnist also said I was urbane and widely respected, so I was not too upset.
The incident raises the question of whether Judaism is comfortable with art. There is a theological aspect, in the light of the Second Commandment. There is also a sociological question: were Jewish communities usually relaxed enough to develop a tradition in the visual arts?
In addition, rabbinic tradition felt the Greeks overdid the worship of beauty. Judaism saw beauty as an adverb more than a noun, saying, “Worship God beautifully”. Yet some sages did explicitly approve of art, saying a b’rachah over anything beautiful, even a beautiful woman. But this too can possibly be part of the concept of worshipping God beautifully, implying that God is the great Artist whose creation is a work of art.
What about the modern view that the ugly, the bizarre, the provocative and the scandalous are also art?
Here too allow me a reminiscence. A leading Australian artist painted a very effective portrait of me in white High Holyday robes. (It did not win the Archibald Prize, though it deserved to!) Yet another artist painted my rabbinical predecessor wearing Shabbat robes, and that portrait did win the Archibald that year. The difference may be that artistic ideas have changed. Had I sat for my portrait sitting on the synagogue steps without my clothes on, I am sure I would have won (though professionally as well as physically I would have been unfrocked).
The bizarre and unconventional is the new orthodoxy. Hopefully it will pass, but until then, Judaism will remain critical and judgmental.