Q. How do you explain the large number of Jews in art and other forms of culture?
A. The view that Jews are specially emotional cannot be the answer, since many peoples are known for their passion. But does being emotional make you a good artist? Does an artist have to be emotional?
Is it that the Jewish mentality tends to make one curious about the truth, giving a Jewish artist a gist of insight and an ability to depict what he/she sees. But granted that there is a Jewish concern for truth, is this not more evident in religion, law, philosophy, literature and science?
Chagall may have come close to the answer with his whimsical mood, which expresses the paradoxes of life that are all too familiar to the Jew. Ben Shahn, when given a degree by Princeton University, was said to display “sympathy for mankind, exhibiting in his work a grave laughter at the follies of our race and a sensitive compassion for its sufferings”. Shahn himself quoted Blake, who said in his “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” that “the righteous indignation over injustice is the truest worship of God”.
Yet none of this proves that there is one Jewish art style – in other words, that Chagall, Shahn or anyone else is typical of Jewish artists – and hence all we can reasonably do may be to take Jewish artists on a case-by-case basis and ask each one in what sense they and their work is Jewish. A consensus may emerge, but I doubt it.