What does it mean to be a Jewish artist or writer? Is one obliged to assert one’s Jewishness — ethnically, religiously, culturally — in order to be seen as such? Or are all Jewish creators by definition “Jewish” creators, even those who create little with what can be considered “Jewish content”?

In Japan, we will have a chance to consider such notions when a remarkable exhibition of the works of the brilliant American artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) opens at the Museum of Modern Art in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture on Dec. 3. This comprehensive retrospective — comprising photographs, watercolors, posters, prints and other media numbering 200 exhibits in all — runs there until Jan. 29, 2012, then tours to Nagoya, Okayama and Fukushima.

What has Shahn, you may ask, to do with the issue of what it means to be a Jewish artist?

Well, he was born into an orthodox Jewish family in Kovno (present-day Kaunas, the second-biggest city in today’s Lithuania). At the time of his birth, however, Kovno was a part of the Russian empire; and the vast majority of its Jews lived in the world’s largest ghetto, the so-called Pale of Settlement, where restrictions were placed on their movements, types of employment, etc.

When Shahn was 4, the family moved some 70 km away to the shtetl of Vilkomir, a provincial town with a majority or at least significant minority of Jews. With about 10,000 Jews living there, Vilkomir was your average-size shtetl, although the population was at that time in decline because the newly-built railways had passed it by.

His father, who worked as a woodcarver (many Jews in those forested regions had jobs connected with lumber), was a socialist activist who ran foul of the strict “anti-terrorist” law. He fled his home to South Africa, then to the United States, where he became a carpenter in Brooklyn, New York, and sent for the family.

At 14, Shahn apprenticed himself to an uncle who had a lithograph business. It was there that he first developed an interest in art — particularly in lettering and calligraphy.

In his 20s, he spent nearly three years in Europe and North Africa. By the time he returned, he was a full-fledged artist with a burning social conscience — a conscience that was the motivating force for all his work, in whatever genre, as it evolved over the decades.

“I hate injustice,” he said. “I guess that’s about the only thing I really do hate and I will go on hunting it all my life.”

The prime injustice that spurred him to create his first notable works was the trumped-up U.S. murder case against two Italian-immigrant anarchists, Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The trial in Boston, which dragged on for seven years, was the cause célèbre of the era. Though the defendants drew such eminent supporters as Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and John Dos Passos, they lost their appeal and were executed in 1927. Shahn twice traveled to Boston to join protest demonstrations.

Shahn created many many works on the theme of the case, depicting everything from the prosecutors and the judge, to the jury, the defendants themselves and a scene with their coffins in it. Clearly his conscience had been vigorously aroused by the injustices that he saw in the process; and this is precisely the quality — of treating the creative impulse as a force against injustice — that can be seen coursing through his entire output.

The key point with Shahn is that, despite the fact that his own people, the Jews, were experiencing injustices of a similar nature at the time, he focused throughout his life on the maltreatment of people who were not his own — transferring whatever personal feelings of grievance or outrage he might have had into empathy for others.

His outlook on misery encompassed ill-treated migrants, Depression-era farm workers and even, later in life, Japanese radiation victims. This, I would like to think, is a quality that many Jewish creators have nurtured and continue to nurture to this day.

However, with the focus of many Jews’ empathy having narrowed hideously in recent decades — thanks in no small part to an unjustifiable identification with Israeli geopolitical machinations — a gross disservice has been done to this quality, with its inherent tolerance, openness and unending compassion for those on the receiving end of injustice and maltreatment.

In the 1930s, Shahn worked with the progressive Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957). He took countless photographs for the Farm Security Administration, recording American poverty with an ever-caring eye. In 1938, he strove to include a portrait of the U.S. poet Walt Whitman (1819-92) in a mural at the Bronx Post Office in New York, but was opposed because Whitman was gay.

One woman protested, “My ancestors fought in the battles of the American Revolution!” To which Shahn replied, “My ancestors fought in the battle of Jericho, but I don’t brag about it.”

In the 1950s, Shahn battled McCarthyism and, working for liberal candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952, he created posters and flyers for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It was around that time, too, that his interest in traditional Jewish themes, particularly centered on Hebrew lettering and the stories in the “Haggadah,” the text that describes the Passover ritual and all that it entails, was rekindled. And then he turned to Asia, traveling in his 60s to Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Cambodia and Japan.

It was a Japanese theme that inspired one of Shahn’s most enduring series of drawings and paintings — the March 1, 1954 incident in which the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), a tuna-fishing boat from Yaizu in Shizuoka Prefecture, was lethally showered with radioactive fallout from a U.S. nuclear test on the mid-Pacific island of Bikini Atoll. Shahn’s beautifully illustrated book on the incident and its victims, with text in Japanese by American poet Arthur Binard, is published by Shueisha under the title “Koko ga Ie da” (“This is My Home”).

Shahn was a Jewish artist in the full sense of the term precisely because he transferred any personal feelings of persecution or outrage at injustice to the cause of others. He rejected the religious dogma of his father, choosing rather to inherit his passion for universal equality and tolerance.

Also, though he created many works for political and social causes, Shahn was never a propagandist or an apologist — as those people are who, in our day, identify with some religious or geopolitical cause of their own and attempt to justify their biased agendas through writing or art. This has never been the Jewish way and never will be.

Perhaps a positive dose of Shahn’s art is just what Japanese people need today to shake off the cocoon of self-piteous lethargy and free themselves for the tasks of bettering the lives of people around them and far away.

Shahn’s art, as we are soon to see again in this country, can be a genuine catalyst for good. He was never a mouthpiece for personal or Jewish causes, and yet, for that very reason, he is a Jewish artist through and through, able to focus on tragedy where it occurs, in the lives of victims everywhere.

In a speech delivered at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1956, he said: “Whatever mass there may be is made up of individuals, and each of them is able to feel and have hopes and dreams.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.