Religious organizations have been censuring — and censoring — artists for a long time. In Judaism, conflict between spirituality and the visual arts dates back 4,000 years, beginning with strictures against graven images.
According to internationally known artist Tobi Kahn, this long tradition is one reason why Jewish artists had difficulty grappling with Jewish themes until very recently.
"I don't think it was an accident that many of the abstract expressionists were Jewish," said the Long Island-based abstract painter during a lecture at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union.
Kahn recently joined 300 religious scholars, artists and clergymembers from around the world in "The Visual Arts and Religious Communities," a series of lectures, demonstrations and exhibits.
Defying much-publicized charges that contemporary artists attack and demean religion, conference participants defended art's role in expressing human spirituality.
"Subliminally or not," the graven-image issue weighs heavily on Jewish artists' minds, Kahn said.
For instance, "Making a sculpture in the image of God" is a problem, he said, "since we don't know what God looks like."
But the late 19th century's modernist movements with their emphasis on abstraction were a blessing for Jewish artists, he said.
"When abstraction came in," accurately depicting God "was something [an artist] didn't have to deal with" anymore, he said. Abstraction let artists focus on their feelings rather than on outward appearances.
Although Jewish artists like super-realist Israel Hershberg work in a representative style, abstract techniques opened a door for those who would otherwise have unconsciously resisted covering spiritual matters.
As abstract techniques began to flourish, Kahn noted, the number of Jewish artists grew enormously and continues growing today.
Kahn recalled a recent panel discussion at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in which all four panelists and the moderator were Jews, although the event was not billed as being involved with Jewish art.
"The moderator said, `Does anybody want any chicken soup?'" Kahn joked.
Yet, an artist need not paint a Star of David or any other recognizably Jewish image in order to create a Jewish painting, Kahn told his audience.
Though New York Times art critic Holland Cotter recently wrote that Kahn "looks to nature, on its most expansive and most intimate scale, for his sources," Kahn himself calls his art deeply spiritual — that is, Jewish.
The artist's father fled Germany in the early 1940s after his family had lived in that country for 400 years. His mother fled Germany in the '30s. Many other relatives did not survive the war, and Kahn maintains that many of his landscape paintings allude directly to the Holocaust.
"When I paint abstracted landscapes, they are often uninhabited," Kahn said. "What at first appears serene and tranquil may grow disturbing upon reflection."
Kahn was commissioned to do a series of paintings on the Twelve Tribes and the Creation,an 8-foot-high green, yellow and red work that looks like objects flying in space. The work, he says, is based on memory rather than representing real-life scenes.
"I love for people to look at my painting and say that it reminds them of the fjords of Norway, but not that it is the fjords of Norway," he said.
Kahn also discussed artists of other cultures, notably the Cuban Catholic Juan Gonzalez. "They're all different religions, different ages and cultures…speaking different languages."
But these artists also affirm the eternal bond between religion and their creations, he added. "There's a deep spiritualism to their work."