Does Chabad Welcome Artists? A Short History of #ChabadArt

Does Chabad Welcome Artists?

A Short History of #ChabadArt

By Dovi Seldowitz

The contemporary Chasidic attitude towards art is popularly believed to be not entirely welcoming; in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, this attitude helps set the background of a young Chasidic artist who is not accepted in his community and must leave to pursue his artistic interests (the novel’s twist, Asher Lev finds exclusive and particular expression in the painting of nudes and crucifixes).[1] While Potok’s “Ludover” community is a thinly veiled reference the the Lubavitcher community, the oppositional attitude towards art attributed to the Chabad movement is by no means exact; art in Chabad may not have included the styles painted by the fictitious Asher Lev, but it is a far cry from the truth to simply write off the Chabad movement’s attitude towards art as unwelcoming.

Sociologists point out that the most objective condition in determining the content and form in a work of art is the social position of the artist and his or her standing in the community, their relationship to the interests of the group to which they belong.[2] The real-life Chabad artists are known for their vivid depictions of Jewish ritual, the Chasidic community, and Chabad outreach. And the Chabad community boasts of a number of respected artists, a few permanent galleries, and most recently, a steady stream of creative spirit in the artistic depictions of Jewish and Chasidic themes.

Contemporary Chabad art dates to the 1940s when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, while working under his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, oversaw the publication of a children’s magazine and had commissioned a young artist, Michel Schwartz, to illustrate the magazine’s comic section. The same artist was commissioned to design the logo of Chabad’s main outreach organization, Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch. Those early roots aside, Chabad art only achieved serious recognition in the 1970s when the Brooklyn Museum featured an exhibition on Chasidic art featuring eight Chabad artists; following that event, Chabad established the Chasidic Art Institute (Chai Art Gallery) in Crown Heights to which the Rebbe personally donated.[3]

The artists featured at the Brooklyn Museum exhibition and subsequently at the Chai Art Gallery included artists who were well known in the community, Hendel Lieberman, Zalman Klienman and Michoel Muchnik. More recently, two new galleries have opened in Crown Heights showcasing the work of younger Chabad artists who have fused contemporary styles and Jewish and Chabad symbols.

The Chabad movement has produced a number of talented artists and they have enjoyed a favorable standing in the community. The Rebbe was known to support Chasidic art and had personal relationships with noted Jewish artist Yaakov Agam and sculptor Jaques Lipschitz. Keeping these facts in mind, we can conclude that the Chabad community is most certainly a welcoming home to Chasidic artists.

Dedicated to Mrs. Sara Seldowitz, a true Chabad artist.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev, Knopf, 1972.

[2] See, Arnold Hauser, “Art as a product of society,” The Sociology of Art (Routledge Revivals), Routledge, 2011, page 137.

[3] See, Michel Schwartz, “The Rebbe and the Artist,” Chabad.org.

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