Topic: Heebster Arts
Much of the Heebster phenomenon relies on effectively using creative representation to challenge the perceived status quo of Jewish life. Thus, artists comprised some of the most successful public figures in this groundswell.
Why is this the case?
In one sense, artistic expression serves as a particularly open-ended form of communication, where meaning can change depending upon the audience and setting. Artistic production—particularly in its non-verbal forms—tends to create meaning by using and building on existing ideas that have become iconic in society. Objects such as the six-pointed “Star of David” (“Jewish Star”), sounds such as the augmented second interval (the “Na-gi” in Hava Nagilah), images such as the Hassidic Jew (including sidelocks, beard and black hat), stereotypes such as the association of Jews with money, and concepts such as the Eastern European “Old World” become fair game as the subjects of new, sometimes subversive treatments.
Heebster arts also tended to incorporate artistic concepts that had previously not figured centrally into “Jewish” expression, particularly in regard to youth cultures. Thus did a whole crop of musical artists employing hip-hop and reggae (such as 50Shekel, Etan G and Matisyahu) emerge onto the scene; theater included performance artists such as Vanessa Hidary, Storahtelling, and Yuri Lane, who incorporated theatrical techniques that often broke the fourth wall and felt to many to be avant garde; films took on reflexive approaches, or modelled unlikely genres (such as Blaxploitation in the case of The Hebrew Hammer); print media tended to pursue underground “Zine-style” layouts (Mazel Tov Cocktail), brash, full glossy formats (Heeb), or high-minded, literary styles (Zeek); literature sought to create new languages for dealing with nostalgia or the Holocaust (seen effectively in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated), while seeking a sense of being on “the edge” (see Paul Zakrzewski’s edited volume Lost Tribe); and visual art aimed to reclaim and redefine the borders of “Jewish” imagery including in one case a retelling of the Passion (Heeb #5). None of these activities necessarily came unprecedented: many of the techniques and ideas brought into Heebster arts could trace to earlier predecessors and inspirations. However, as with other aspects of Heebster culture, the very promotion of these performances and exhibitions as new and different from the ideas of previous generations offered enough of an impetus for young people to claim them as their own.
Several of the participants in this phenomenon described their work as 'radical,' though in a manner somewhat different from conventional understandings of political or religious radicalism. Although artistic radicalism in this forum occasionally looked to the political arena for inspiration and collaboration, the concept aimed mainly to recast, reenvision and juxtapose cultural symbols in 'new' ways. Mainstream media also popularized the term as a way to bring attention to the artists they highlighted, thus
Perhaps one of the oldest and most prominent purveyors of the concept is John Zorn’s Tzadik recording label, which has become a home for his Radical Jewish Culture series. Launched officially in 1994, the Radical Jewish Culture series predated the Heebster phenomenon by several years; yet in some ways it has served as a kind of spiritual model in part because of its long-term existence as one of the only initiatives with a viable economic plan. Still producing c. 10-15 CDs per year, it continues to seek out new artists for recording and to reissue out-of-print titles with particular significance or popularity.
Investigate: Follow the link above to the Tzadik website and look up the “Radical Jewish Culture” series. Look at the album art, the musicians, the descriptions and the album titles. How does the series live up to its 'Radical Jewish Culture' claim? What kinds of resymbolization are taking place here?
Questions for Further Discussion:
1. Many of these artists avoid calling themselves exclusively “Jewish” artists; rather, they see themselves as individuals who have created works associated with Judaism, often as a result of their personal backgrounds. How does this positioning associate these artists with the broader artistic world? What does this positioning mean in terms of the Heebster phenomenon (funding, reception, promotion, etc.)?
2. Why is the feeling of new-ness so important to the Heebster phenomenon, particularly when it comes to the arts?