(Jewish Telegraphic Agency) Jews have proven over and over again that they cannot create great art, so they have no choice but to appropriate, copy, comment on, and subvert the art of Western civilization — and Tirtzah Bassel’s “Canon In Drag” show is proof of that fact:
At first glance, Tirtzah Bassel’s painting of a young woman surrounded by her three attendants and a portraitist seems familiar.
That’s by design. Bassel’s work, “La Menarquia” (“The Menarche”), is a study of Diego Velazquez’s renowned 17th-century group portrait “La Meninas” (“The Ladies in Waiting”). But, despite mirroring Velzaquez’s composition — including costumes that reflect Spanish court attire of the time — Bassel’s version is radically different. Velazquez’s painting depicts an infant princess whose position in life is dictated by more powerful men; in Bassel’s version, meanwhile, the princess is at the center of an imagined ritual in which she comes into her menarcheal blood power as a woman.
“La Menarquia” is just one of a series of paintings by Bassel that turns the tropes of classic “Western” art on its head. Bassel’s solo exhibit at the Slag Gallery in Chelsea, “Canon in Drag,” features 35 pieces that, as a collection, create an imaginary world outside the patriarchy — one in which women’s experiences are centered.
“What if the firsthand experience of birth was part of the main story, not a footnote?” Bassel asked rhetorically. “What would that canon look like?”
Bassel, 43, told the New York Jewish Week that her approach to these paintings have been inextricably molded by the Jewish experience. “I feel like all of Jewish history is cycles of subversion and canonization,” she said. And now she’s painting a new one.
Though she now lives and works in Brooklyn, Bassel grew up in an Orthodox family in Jerusalem. She views her childhood as a mixed bag: While it was culturally rich, she also sensed that, as a woman, she’d never reach the highest places of power. “When I went to midrasha [an institute of Torah study for women], I specifically went to one where I could study Talmud, because it was clear to me that in order to hold the keys to power in that world, that was one thing you had to have,” she said.
While that gender inequity was a major factor in Bassel’s eventual departure from Orthodox Judaism as a young adult, she said she still maintained an affinity for canons (Jewish or otherwise) and the belief that she could out-maneuver the patriarchy if she worked hard enough.
By age 22, halfway out the door of the Orthodox world and on track to become a social worker, Bassel stumbled upon a drawing class at the Jerusalem Studio School. The institution’s atelier-style approach to art education appealed to Bassel’s respect for tradition, and she quit studying social work to enroll full time in the Studio School. Since the program wasn’t accredited, the choice to be there, she felt, was the highest form of commitment to the arts: learning art for its own sake, or art “lishma” in Hebrew.
The Studio School’s dual emphasis on painting from daily life and learning from the masters inspired Bassel and helped shape her artistic career. At the same time, however, Bassel felt the institution — along with the wider art world — reinforced the gender biases that she thought she’d left behind with Orthodoxy. “The art world in general is incredibly misogynist — though sometimes it’s not immediately visible,” she said….
…She tried “flipping” a few iconic works and posted the images on Instagram. In her take of Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century “Arnolfini Portrait,” for example, the pregnant wife is now in the midst of a realistically rendered orgasmic birth. The response was immediate: “There was an outpouring — folks telling me that I was sharing things that were so personal to their lives, that they’d never seen depicted before.”
Sometimes, though, her flips were flops. Simply replacing female nudes with male nudes didn’t always work; after all, there are already many male nudes in the canon (think: Michelangelo’s “David”). By contrast, portraying fathers erotically performing skin-to-skin contact, the way that nursing mothers are often depicted in classical art, felt very subversive.
These artistic experiments eventually became the “Canon in Drag” collection — the 35 gouache paintings on display at the gallery, plus some additional works still in progress.
Though not a fan of labels — the term “Jewish artist” makes her squirm as much as “woman artist” — Bassel admits that her public grappling with Western art canon, while, at the same time, respecting canon enough to wrestle with it, stems from her Orthodox Jewish background.
“It’s a blueprint for what I’m doing right now,” she said. “Despite the rigidity of Orthodox life, I experienced the parshanut [exegesis] model as very creative and full of agency for the individual. Many people could interpret the same text differently and take it into their lives in different ways. Canon is a technology for having a really rich conversation that simultaneously goes back in time and into the future.”
This is a prime example of the talmudic mindset — which takes the Bible and turns it on its head, deconstructing it — making the word of God to none effect.
This gestalt can be found everywhere in Jewish life and “culture of critique” — regardless of whether or not a Jew is “religious” or not — the outsider who tears down what he is incapable of creating.
That why the National Socialists created the popular Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst” show in Munich in 1937 to demonstrate the degenerate influence that Jewish values had on European art and culture.
As Maurice Samuel revealed in his book You Gentiles:
“We Jews, we are the destroyers and will remain the destroyers. Nothing you can do will meet our demands and needs. We will forever destroy because we want a world of our own.”
Another Jew — Samuel Roth — in his 1934 book Jews Must Live freely acknowledged that Jews were incapable of great art:
“Many articles and books have already been written on the subject of how much the Jews have enriched America culturally. Needless to add, Jews authored them. And while it is undoubtedly true that Jews have given themselves over infinitely to the vain-show and inglorious barter which everywhere accompany the development of the arts and the sciences, I cannot find anything of value that they have themselves created in their two hundred and fifty years residence on the American continent.”
Roth rightly points out that Jews fail at art because they have no connection to the land, its people, and its culture — and that they hate to work hard:
“What a sorry spectacle the Jew makes on this continent which he pretends to have enriched! Not only does he fail to contribute any glamour to the scene. He does not even contribute man-power. He does not dig wells, plough fields, forge skyscrapers, lay bricks, cut out trenches, spin wheels, bake dough, fell trees, pack tin cans, sweep streets, heave coal, fire furnaces, weave cloth, dig subways, raise ramparts, wall floods, rivet bridges, hinge gates, or fight fires. Even at a time like this, when more man-power is offered this country than it can; alas, utilize, it cannot be disputed that quite as important as the vision of an artist who swings a nation from goal to goal, is the man-power with which the vision is reached and passed on the way to the next. Towards the man-power of America Jewry contributes only that which it catches in its own sweatshops, as in so many rat-traps – set by itself. It seems to be part of the Jew’s unwritten code that he should never work. Unless something happens to change his vision, I venture to add that he never will, either.
What Roth is talking about here is the White European value of “blood and soil” — the antithesis of the abstract life lived by urban dwelling Jews — a concept which Jews mock and deride — and which sends terror into their deracinated hearts.
That’s why Jews were so offended by the German maxim at the entrance of Auschwitz, “Arbeit Mach Frie” — that is, “Work will make you free.”
Jews are thus masters at kitsch — lowbrow, unskilled art that they attempt to elevate and replace the great masters of western Christendom.
And Tirtzah Bassel’s kitsch is merely another pretentious Jewish posture — a sad attempt to say something when she really has nothing to say.