Tobi Kahn

Seeing & ceremony.

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I used to love making very small meditative spaces or small, sculpted objects that people could hold in their hands. But now I want to hold you, the viewer, visually and conceptually within a created space.

MORRIS: What part of the process of creating do you love most?

KAHN: I love the beginning, and I love the ending; the middle is the hardest part. At the start, the idea feels boundless; it could go anywhere. In the middle, I have to rein it in, to limit it to its essence so that the viewer will have the most powerful experience. And yet I cannot constrain the idea so much that it becomes dogmatic, without room for the viewer's interpretation. I really want my work to be like manna, the food for the children of Israel in the desert that could taste like whatever they desired.

A Visual & Sensual People

ARUGAT HABOSEM II, Spice Box (1994), Acrylic on wood, 9 1/2 x 4 x 4 inches

MORRIS: The second commandment states that Jews should not make carved images. What does that mean for Jews as an aesthetic people?

KAHN: The second commandment forbids making--that is, worshipping--any graven images. I don't think Jews are meant to worship graven images, but in truth we're not supposed to worship anything at all, except for God. More people worship money than worship a piece of art. And they may worship the art, but very often they do because it's worth money. I think that the reason Jews have not made art is because we were not allowed to join the guilds of the majority cultures, not because the visual element is forbidden.

We are a deeply visual people, which comes, in part, from how diverse we look and how diversely we live. Jews come from so many different places, each of which shaped us in how we see the world and each other. There is no one Jewish "look."

Our stories are visual, our historical images are visual, and as soon as we were permitted to join the art community, we soared. Jews are a very small percentage of people in the world, but we're a huge percentage of the world-renowned architects, painters, sculptors, glass blowers, ceramicists.

When I take Jewish groups to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I begin with the art of the Cyclades. These small objects, including figurines and functional art, were made around 2800 B.C.E., the era of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. I then show the group a hammered gold gravy boat that was made at the same time as the Golden Calf was being fashioned in the desert. The household idols our foremother Rachel hid or the Golden Calf are no longer ancient, remote abstractions when we see their analogues in the art of the surrounding cultures.

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