My upcoming solo exhibit at Artspace Gallery in Jerusalem's German Colony is now available for previews. To book an appointment please contact: Phone: 972-546371100 or 972-2-5639567

Happy to invite you to the exhibition "The Seventh Day: Revisiting Shabbat" at the Hebrew Union College Museum, 1 W. 4th Street in Manhattan, running from October 3, 2013 – June 27, 2014. I will be exhibiting photographs. or 212-824-2298

Friday, April 11, 2014

Still, It's Life: New Works at Artspace Gallery

"Almond Buds in Finjan" 2014 oil on linen mounted on board 40 x 40 cm by Heddy Abramowitz
Spring has been in the air for weeks in Jerusalem – we get the first optimistic buds in early February and then bursts of almond trees blossoming all over. They enliven unexpected places like back lots in densely-built neighborhoods and otherwise mundane commutes, helping to jar our eyes with beauty so easily overlooked in the daily grind.

With a solo exhibition in transition at Artspace Gallery in the German Colony, I’d like to introduce a couple of the works. The exhibit will include cityscapes, portraits, self-portraits, landscape, a broad range of subject matter united though direct observation. I will discuss two of the still lifes.

Is Still Life really boring? The French refer to it as Nature Morte – dead nature – perhaps saying that the subject is bereft of life. Or is it more like the idea behind the Dutch term – stilleven –which suggests closeness to the act of living life?  To me, still life can be an exciting combination of the process of finding beauty in the mundane, weaving traditional concerns of color, light and composition with threads including something more.

At this time of year, clearing our homes of leavening for Passover, I have heightened awareness of the stuff of modern life, the objects we use and live amongst. Though observation may be at the heart of my still lifes, they can extend beyond relating the experience of seeing and become vested with personal meanings, symbols, associations and larger thoughts, sometimes approaching personal allegories, and occasionally social commentary. Of course, these are my own thoughts, a different viewer may never sense what I was thinking, and may bring their own reactions to the works.

In Almond Buds with Finjan, I combine very early glimmerings of spring with an unusual vase - an ordinary pot for brewing coffee known in local parlance as botzor mud. The buds first sprout while the weather is still prone to blustery days and offers the promise of approaching spring. ‘Mud’ combined with optimism create a dissonance that I feel is typical of life generally and life in Israel particularly. My jumble of thoughts run from the aroma of strong coffee through to early Zionist songs from kumzits days, winding to the innocent songs of gan (pre-school), jolting to the mud associated with wars and its despair and lurching to the mud of early spring and the pull of life as it continues the rhythm of natural renewal.  

This is one of a number of my works in which I do a twist on the classic still life subject of flowers in a vase – sometimes the vase is the oddity, sometimes what goes into the vase is the change, together they are a combination that is meant to jiggle thoughts beyond the first encounter of looking in itself. A dichotomy of meaning is what speaks to me in these still lifes.

It is hard to pin down where painting ideas come from. Years of looking – at paintings and at life around me – seems to have created an internal resource file that I pull from. I find that it can take a long time for a painting idea to coalesce, even years. And then it does.
The visual source that led to the related painting, Almond Blossoms in a Tea Cup, came from a number of Claude Monet’s paintings of a Japanese bridge in his Giverny gardens, a subject he revisited several times, examples of which can be seen at the Met in NY, the National Gallery in D.C., the National Gallery in London, and at the Orsay and Marmorttan Museums in Paris. The bridge in those works, an arc, stayed with me, percolating subconsciously until I knew I wanted to use it for this painting. A bridge safely traverses over something avoidable and this one has an elegance that I associate with the arched back of a dancer in space. It is the stretch of an extended body, the grace of a long line that I wanted to bring to this painting, which is comprised of three elements – a branch of freshly-sprouted almond blossoms, a glass of water and a table top.

"Almond Branch in a Tea Cup" 2014 oil on linen 90 x 35 cm by Heddy Abramowitz

Many painters have been inspired by flowering almond trees, Van Gogh comes to mind, and Bonnard’s haunting last work is essential to that theme. My engagement with local nature has included them - but those approaches related to the tree as the subject in nature. I wanted to reduce the gaze to the wonder of a single branch. 

Almond trees hearken to ancient times and are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, where it is a symbol of watchfulness and promise felt by its early flowering.  This is as relevant today as ever.

The other elements bring me to more associations. Typically, still life paintings have the subject matter placed on a tabletop. Sometimes I think of the surface as more of an altar, a place to contemplate the uniqueness of the objects, a visual offering.  

In this painting, the tabletop is one that appears in many paintings and has a personal significance. When I moved to Israel long ago, the Jewish Agency gave new immigrants basic supplies to manage with until they could adjust to their new surroundings. This included some very practical items: simple pots, plates, cutlery and plaid acrylic blankets. 

Some things struck this spoiled westerner as quizzical – I had never before seen a p’tilia – a standing burner for cooking, great for appliance-less bare apartments in times of austerity. It has since become the vital tool for home- style restaurants of the amcha variety, a sort of culinary backlash to the pretensions of affluence.

Two stools. And a red-topped table with iron legs.  

That table joined us as marriage and life in Jerusalem began. Eventually it was re-purposed as my work surface where it has built up a patina of splatters, drips and spills, a silent witness to my life and work. 

Warhorse that it is, it has served as prop for many a painting. In this work, the red surface leans towards a deep burgundy, an association for me to the local earth. It is simultaneously both the fertile soil of gnarled grape vines developing into their maturity to become deeper, more complex wines; just as it bears the stains of battle in a war-torn land. 

The final element is a simple tea glass of water. In arid Israel, water is a high concern. In Judaism, it is part of daily prayers; Israeli weather reports include the level of the Sea of Galillee – how close are we to the red line?  Or, which red line? The upper red line or the really critical bottom red line?  (A part of the national character is the ability to distinguish run-of-the-mill normal crises from it’s already-too-late real emergencies). Water is inseparable from life.

From buds to blossoms, these paintings represent a return to living and hope for good things to come.

This post was originally published on Times of Israel here or

Artspace Gallery, by appointment only, contact:
Phone: 972-546371100 or 972-2-5639567,
e-mail: <>

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Purim Power: Silliness and Sickness

"Seminary Friends at the Jaffa Gate"

Joy, festivities, costumes, silliness and even drunkenness are all customarily associated with Purim. We give food gifts to friends and neighbors; we give charity to the poor. Yet, as life will have it, not all are in the mood or able to fully participate in this holiday which emphasizes over-the-top exuberance.
Those who are hospitalized and ill are not overlooked. Having a family member so situated last year brought me to Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem even as Shushan Purim was at its height. Traveling from the Jewish Quarter to the hospital gave me a new perspective on the holiday, seen through the eyes of one preoccupied with health concerns.

"Family of Builders"
 The contrast between the world outside the hospital and inside the hospital was even starker than usual. The sheer party mood included some of my favorite aspects of the holiday, well-conceived couple’s costumes, family costumes and group friends’ costumes.
"Reindeer Couple"
"Local Flavor Couple"
Politics, of course does sneak into the day, with children dressing up as a different sector of society, with adults choosing their costume to make a statement.

"Soldier and Hasid Kids"

"Conflicted Views"
"Passengers And Revelers"

The light rail was filled with revelers inside the train and a veritable impromptu Purim parade was constant along the tracks.
"Shaarei Tzedek Hospital Elevator at Purim"

"Seminary Students Speaking with Doctor"
Inside the hospital we were tickled to see seminary girls and yeshiva guys going about cheering up the patients.

"Singing To Heal"
Sometimes even the portions of shalach manot (treats for giving to neighbors) were cleverly comprised to accommodate the patient’s dietary requirements while still bringing a smile.

"Purim Portion for the Sick"
Even a few celebs showed up, without their entourage or paparazzi.

"Marilyn Does Bikur Cholim (Visiting the Sick)"
When you think about it though, the laughter of Purim is at its best when directed towards the ailing. Is it not said that laughter is the best medicine?
A joyful Purim to all…
All photographs © 2014 by Heddy Abramowitz
A similar post was originally published as a featured blog on the Times of Israel here:

Monday, January 20, 2014

Paul Cezanne's World

"Mount Saint-Victoire from the Train Station" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

When the high-speed train pulls into the station at Aix-en-Provence, a familiar face suddenly looms into view. Mount Saint-Victoire, ever-present in so many of Cezanne’s landscapes is now part of your own space and air, even as it shimmers in the haze on the horizon.

Paul Cezanne would really be getting up there, this, the 175th anniversary of his birth.

With only a half a day to spend in Aix not-so-recently, left us with too little time to include all that we wished to see and could only pick one thing to visit. We chose Cezanne’s last studio, where one can walk through his gardens, visit his working studio, see the dust collect on the objects so familiar from his still life paintings and engage in his world, however briefly.
"Entrance Atalier Cezanne"  ©2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Entrance Atelier Cezanne" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

This studio came to Cezanne late in life, the result of an inheritance.  From here he focused on the Provence scenery, with Mount Saint-Victoire present in 44 oil paintings and 43 water colors, a veritable muse from nature.

As Cezanne aged, his tendency to become more isolated in his work increased. His desire to die with his boots on became clear. He slogged away painting in nature in storms and other difficult conditions until a collapse on site when a final bout with pleurisy brought about his demise at age 67.

His desire was to be true to his experience, as Cezanne said:
"Painting from nature is not copying the object, it is realizing sensations."
The studio, known as "Les Lauves," only came into his life three years before his death. It was a purpose-specific building, with his high-ceilinged studio on the second floor, now still full of the props that became a part of his canvases. One of the things that most struck me was a tall and narrow slit window that was custom-made to pass through his large canvases of bathers, painted without the benefit of models, that he would have lowered into the gardens to work on and then passed back though the slit into his studio again.

"Fig Tree at Les Lauves"  ©2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Fig Tree at Les Lauves" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

The only tie-in I can find to life in Israel is the recent celebration of Tu B'Shvat, when we acknowledge our connection with nature. Somehow Cezanne's birthday and that recent holiday make a nice fit. Or an excuse to honor the memory of a painter dedicated to experience nature and convey it to the rest of us.

Ok, an excuse. I'll use it. Happy Birthday Paul Cezanne.

"Statue of Paul Cezanne - Studio Les Lauves"  ©2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Statue of Paul Cezanne - Studio Les Lauves" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

This post was originally published on Times of Israel here or :

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Breaking Bread: Challah as a Sign of the Times

"Peer Challot" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

Winter brings with it certain smells that trigger memory. Burning wood in fireplaces. Bread baking. The temperatures drop and I buy yeast. For me, no food spells comfort more than yeasty fresh bread still warm from the oven.

Not that I bake as often as I would like. The best of the local bakeries are so good it seems like a superfluous task.

Bread baking is more than a cold weather thing in Judaism. Flour, water, leavening and eggs, and some spiritual elements are the alchemy that combines to make challah, the traditional braided loaves that are an integral part of the weekly Sabbath (Shabbat) and holiday meals.

It was with those thoughts in mind that I responded to curator, Laura Kruger’s, invitation to tackle the subject of challah for the current exhibit at the Hebrew Union College Museum in lower Manhattan, “The Seventh Day: Revisiting Shabbat.” The exhibit explores contemporary takes on the Shabbat day in art and the catalogue can be viewed here.

I set out to make a personal album of bakeries that are stations in my routine. The four selected photographs culled from that album are on display in the exhibition which is running the entire academic year.

Baking challah in Judaism is not, in itself, an act of religious observance. However, the commandment “to take challah” is one of the three observances that are specifically associated with women in traditional Judaism and is biblical in origin.
"Of the first of your dough you shall present a loaf as a contribution; like a contribution from the threshing floor, so shall you present it. (Numbers 15:20)"
This involves removing a bit of the unbaked dough, with or without a blessing, depending on the amount of dough, a symbolic act of remembrance of the Temple and a connection to God through the ancient priests (Cohanim). Thus the most mundane of chores is elevated to a higher spiritual plane. Many women consider the lengthy process of making challah an appropriate time to include their supplications for health and recovery, fertility, finding spouses for those searching and other personal prayers in this, their private conversation with their Maker.
"Book of Prayers (Sefer Ha Tefilot)" frontispiece, Amsterdam, 1705 C. 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Book of Prayers (Sefer Ha Tefilot)"  engraving frontispiece, Amsterdam, 1705 © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
The image shown above is the frontispiece of an Amsterdam prayer book from 1705. It shows the three traditional obligations on a woman:  family purity (ritual separation during her menstrual flow), lighting candles for Shabbat and holidays, and the taking of challah.

There is hardly a locale in Israel that does not have fairly easy access to these twisted Shabbat breads. Every supermarket and many tiny convenience stores stock this as a matter of course. During our recent heavy snowfall, which cut off hilly Jerusalem from regular deliveries and pretty much put the city in siege, local volunteers took it upon themselves to distribute challot in affected neighborhoods. Of course, the grocery stores had long ago been stripped clean of any baking supplies.

It is when traveling that we Israelis become newly aware that challah is not something that can be taken for granted. Many seek out Chabad  houses to obtain this Shabbat basic. Researching  where a kosher bakery can be found is often part of an observant Jew’s advance travel planning, beyond the itinerary. And for those who live and observe Shabbat in areas without kosher bakeries, planning ahead may include complicated logistics when visiting larger Jewish communities in order to keep the freezer stocked.

No easy feat this photographic challenge. The aromas alone envelop the casual shopper, let alone the serious shutter-bug taking shot after shot in the peak shopping hours before the quickly approaching Shabbat.

In my Jewish Quarter neighborhood, franchises of well-known bakery chains have arrived, something unheard of in the earlier years of the neighborhood. In those days, the only locally produced fresh bread was from the pita bakeries still working daily on Habad Street or the products of the big industrial bakeries.
Ne'eman Bakery 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Ne'eman Bakery" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

One newcomer, Ne’eman  bakery, offers freshly baked challot, the classic Israeli bakery bread; white flour, lightly glazed with a sesame seed sprinkle. Tray after tray stacked taller than myself on a rolling cart, these are the typical challot which grace many a table. But, in terms of price, this is mid-level. Families on a stricter budget. especially large families (“families blessed with many children” in the local parlance) will choose a more generic and simpler choice from a supermarket.

Next door to Neeman is an Arab-owned pita bakery. This photograph, taken before a subsequent renovation, shows the display case offering not just the traditional Arab breads, including sesame bagels, flat breads, za’atar or onion pitot, but, in a quirk of cross-culturalism, also a twisted challah bread made from the pita dough. Not to worry, the orthodox residents of the Jewish Quarter can patronize this store, because it is under the strictest supervision of a Mehadrin Kashrut (kosher) supervisor, complete with certificate. Their customers include Arabs, whom I am told also enjoy challah. In a riff on the old ad, it still seems “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy challah.”
"Arab Bakery, Jewish Quarter" ©2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Arab Bakery, Jewish Quarter" ©2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
The end of my search took me to the belly of Jerusalem, the colorful and vibrant outdoor market Machane Yehuda. As a devotee of the shuk for over 30 years, I have witnessed the waves of its evolution. Earliest ventures required a bit of fortitude, stall keepers would not sell less than a  kilo bag at a time, patience was lacking for struggling Hebrew speakers, the scene included competitive screaming in chants to drum up business, fish jumping right out of the stall was not uncommon. The range of produce was basic, nothing more than run-of-the-mill cucumbers, peppers, eggplants and oranges. Politicians made the shuk an obligatory campaign stop, but, otherwise, it was the territory of amcha, the hardworking guys with rough hands. Chaotic, and lacking amenities, it was a challenge, but affordable and very real.

The years of exploding bombs during the intifadas discouraged many of the old-time shoppers, and improvements followed to entice the middle class and the well-off into the shuk. Exotic and esoteric were still years away.

Now, with franchise stores peppering the area, chef-run restaurants and up-scale eateries encroaching from every side, it seems the authenticity of the shuk experience is itself a sort of endangered species. Almost weekly one sees a butcher’s stall becoming a steakiah grill, a bakery becoming a hipster bar - replete with an open professional kitchen to view. Celebrity chefs are drawn here like bees to honey. And no wonder, what has always been an amazing market is getting its due.
Ugat Chen, Machene Yehuda, © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Ugat Chen, Machane Yehuda" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
This last of the four photographs exhibited shows the kind of exchange that is fast disappearing, as the stalwarts give way to the trendy. This  bakery worker gives a piece of his mind to the customer while another selects from the overwhelming choice of sizes and styles of challah.

As the market again re-invents itself, the wafting aromas of the challah breads will be an anchor in the weekly rhythm. Challah is at the center of every Shabbat meal. A constant in a changing world.

The Seventh Day: Revisiting Shabbat, Hebrew Union College, 1 West Fourth St. (Between Broadway and Mercer) continuing through June 27, 2014 (see website for more details).

This was originally published on the Times of Israel here or:

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A New Calendar, a New Year

"Happy New Year,  The Christian Quarter" Graffiti, photograph, copyright 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

Though the secular calendar runs much of Israel, businesses, many public events, and certainly all contact with people abroad,  the New Year is kind of a wobbly event in Israel.  Even for the secular.

The Jews celebrate the New Year in a religious way at Rosh Ha Shana,  with much internal soul-searching, personal accounting, and public communal confession.  It is far away from the frivolous and alcohol-fueled celebrations that those of us from abroad associate with New Year's Eve.  Restaurants and bars are full, joviality and commerce pushing this transplanted holiday into our lives,  an awkward fit that is taking its time to root in inappropriate soil.  The newish, not so Jewish, shoots are taking hold.

I have written a personal remembrance about the Jewish New Year here, and it relates to my father's WWII experiences as a an American GI at the war's end.   A little heavy.  Hey,  light doesn't come too easy at times.

But, being human,  it is hard not to feel a rush of hope as the calendar and our check-writing changes to a new digit, unfamiliar at first, and eventually routine.   Hope springs eternal,  a new calendar, a new month, and brand new page.  A new canvas.

So with many good wishes to all who celebrate this New Year, may 2014 help us create upon that canvas only good.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Nature Calls: Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov at Artspace

Untitled, 2011 116 cm x 120 cm oil on canvas by Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov

The hills are alive in Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov’s exhibit, “The Same Landscape,” at the German Colony’s Artspace Gallery. Whether you prefer Julie Andrews or Carrie Underwood, there is no bursting into song and dance. These are, after all, not Swiss Alps, rather softly undulating Galilean hillsides.
Kestenbaum Ben Dov, in this, her third solo at this charming off-the-beaten-track Jerusalem venue (a review of the previous one can be seen here), digresses from the art work we have come to associate with her, such as Hebrew texts and self-portraits. She has chosen, instead, to concentrate on her own front yard.
And what a front yard it is. American-born, Kestenbaum Ben Dov has lived in Israel for over thirty years, holds a BFA in art from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and lives and works in the village of Eschar in Misgav in the north of Israel.
These works, all created in close proximity to her studio were done in  the same landscape, session after session over a three year period, between 2010 and 2013. Most entail long hard looks at the views to pin down the subtle color changes resulting from differing times of day, seasons or atmospheric changes.
This is not an exhibit that shouts out at the viewer. The volume has been turned down very low. Seeing is paramount and no intellectual gymnastics are required. Try to listen for the hush of the bristles.
While their approaches to painting the landscape differ widely, it is Claude Monet who comes to mind as an antecedent to these works. Kestenbaum Ben Dov’s works are a close response to the nature as seen, rather than painting an impression of one’s perceptions which Monet did, bringing him to be considered the founder of Impressionism. His series of paintings of haystacks changing color and light with the angle of the sun spring to mind, as well as the later series of views of the Rouen cathedral at different times of day.
In the mammoth exhibit, “Claude Monet (1840-1926),” shown at the Grand Palais in 2010 -2011 in Paris, John House pointed out that these works represented a shift in the artist’s approach:
Two points are crucial here: Monet’s emphasis on the changing light effect as his primary subject, rather than the material motif represented, and his insistence on the value of the entire series, seen together.
Here too, Kestenbaum Ben Dov sees the same view afresh in each painting, open to shifts in light, a different angle or emphasis. Light is also her main subject. By exhibiting these works of the same landscape together, like Monet, the artist demands from the viewer to slow down and look at what may, at first glance, seem like very similar paintings, yet are all unique.
The artist standing en plein air has the experience of smelling the earth, hearing the shrubs rustle, feeling the wind in her hair, the warmth of the sun or the coolness of the breeze, as well as the more annoying aspects of nature like gnats and flies drawn to the smell of the oil and paints. Of course, these sensations are unknown to the viewer.
Nature is often overwhelming in its complexity. Seeing the works of repeated engagements with the hills together, one gets to share in the decision-making process of the artist vicariously. Like an editor, the artist must decide what is included, what is important, what is superfluous to convey the particularity of each separate outdoor session. The paintings vary in sizes, from small studies to more sustained larger paintings, from classically proportioned rectangles to elongated narrow ones, with the occasional vertical view as well. In some, a unifying underpainting color may be used which peeks through later applications of paint, in others not. The viewer can compare all these nuanced choices, without the sweat and dust.
"Untitled II, 2010" 2010 100 cm x 50 cm oil on canvas by Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov
Untitled II, 2010, 2010 100 cm x 50 cm oil on canvas by Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov
The Western approach to landscape painting traditionally divides the image into foreground, middle ground and background. For many painters, very often it is the foreground that presents the greatest challenge, and some of her works evidence that battle. In one effort she uses an arc to delineate the space, in another Kestenbaum Ben Dov simplifies it in a blurry shortcut to a solution. One title reveals a painting focusing on a centered single flower that is pulled from memory, another tack.

Three from "Five Views"
Three paintings from the series "Five Views," 2013, 160 cm x 32 cm oil on canvas by Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov

Many of the stronger works take on less and stand well on their own with nature providing the answers. Her atmospheric series called "Five Views" includes gentle fog rounding a bend, like that which “comes on little cat feet” a delicate evocation of winter drives through the cooler times of the year, as now (nod to Carl Sandburg- this gallery is owned by a poet, after all).

Though her approach is a narrow one vis à vis the range of contemporary approaches to landscape painting, Kestenbaum Ben Dov succeeds in conveying the experience of her vista with the sensitivity of one who breathes it in and out each day. For the rest of us, the city dwellers and those that live far from the splendor of the Galilee, these paintings make her front yard ours.

Doing what comes naturally works. Over and over again.

Artspace Gallery, exhibit extended through the end of January, closing date undetermined as of this writing. Hours are Tuesday and Thursday from 5-7 p.m. or by appointment (02) 566-2423.

Announcement: The exhibition "My Soul Thirsts" at Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem, part of the Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art that was reiviewed here, has been extended through December 22, 2013.
This post was originally published on the Times of Israel here or

Monday, November 25, 2013

"What Is Art?"

In response to the post on the Venice Biennale here, painter Ruth Keusch asks the fair question:

"The questions remain... 'What is Art?' We won't be around in 100 years to see what is art and what has remained. I guess we try everything... but is everything Art and how do we define it? We know that money and protection will get a big show... does that count for something? It gets more and more confusing . The camera is being replaced by the i phone- where do we go next?"
Guest blogger Ahuva Passow-Whitman responds:

"When my daughter was in third grade I was invited to talk to her class about art. I started by writing on the blackboard 2 x 2 = 5.
The class screamed out to me that it was wrong. I answered that yes, it was wrong if we were teaching arithmetic.But since I was asked to talk about art- there is no wrong answer. And we proceeded from there.
The question was put to me, as a response to my guest blog on the Venice Biennale, how we can know what art is. I can only begin by saying that we know what it is NOT: It is not science (although in dealing with problems of perspective it can be quite mathematical). Art, and all the arts, have changed over the centuries.
Abstract art would have been unthinkable to the ancient Greeks; jazz would have seemed like screeching sounds to Mozart. Photography and video are now respected members of the artistic repertoire, and cinema is the seventh art. Martha Graham's ballets would seem chaotic to a 19th choreographer. e.e.cummings wouldn't make sense to John Donne.
So we see that what was once perhaps unthinkable or unimaginable is now very much a part of what we naturally accept in the artistic canon. Time is often a crucial factor: Bach was forgotten and only "resurrected" by Mendelssohn. Raphael was out of favor in the 18th century, yet Michelangelo was immediately recognized, at age 24, as 'il divino,' the divine.
Our problem is more complicated when we are bombarded with masses of art, at a museum, or at an event like the Venice Biennale, where there are so many styles and so many diverse forms of expression. We would like to make some sense out of what often seems chaotic. The problem is how to do it. Are there really rules to guide us?
A while ago, a quiz was sent to me on the internet. The point was to see if the observer could differentiate between scribbles made by a 4 year old and abstract painting done by artists. The results showed that a trained and educated eye could almost always see the differences. Even what may seem at first glance nothing more than random scribbling, when done by an experienced artist, does have some innate structure or composition to it.
So, perhaps, what we long to see in art, in any art form, is some sense of composition, order, unity. What we often feel we are lacking are the guidelines by which to judge what was judged created now, right around us.
How do we decide 'what is art?' Sadly, given the free-for-all that can pass as artistic license or liberty, we do not always have the means to make those judgments clearly and we have to rely on instincts or immediate reactions to what we see.
In 1997 I went to the Venice Biennale and had my 6 year old daughter with me (the same daughter from the later third grade class on art). We entered one of the pavilions in the Giardini which had its walls completely covered with cockroaches. And her immediate, stunned question to me was 'is this art?' And my immediate, one word answer was 'no.'
Was it because it was cockroaches, a clearly unpleasant creature to most of us, or because of the lack of structure and/or order in the way they were put on the walls, or perhaps a bit of both? It felt as if the artist wanted to produce an effect of 'anything goes,' and epater le bourgeois- angering the respectable middle class, as it were.

In fact, anything can and does go nowadays, and it is truly getting harder and harder to make sense out of it all. Elephant dung, artist's urine, dead animals- all these can now be found in art exhibitions, sometimes accepted by the galleries or museums, sometimes not.
Creative artists in any field have achieved super celebrity status; so have actors and musicians of all types of music. To the lovers of operatic spectacle, the stage extravaganzas of Lady Gaga seem lewd and ludicrous. All these aspects are a part of the larger phenomenon of art(s) criticism and judgment.
I have not meant to offer any easy or clear answers. All I can say again is that there are a number of elements that can help facilitate trying to answer that question.
The first is an exposure to the arts, from earliest childhood. The more you read, see, listen to and experience, the broader the knowledge becomes. The second is an education in the arts, helping us understand what we are reading, seeing, hearing.
But the last two are the very same elements that refer us back to the example I gave to the third graders: art is NOT science, and therefore the element of time enters in thereby helping us see things differently at different times in our own lives and often only much later down the line.

That never changes in mathematics: 2 x 2 is always 4, no matter when the problem is posed. But, perhaps, like judging fine food or fine wine, judging art comes down to a 'sense of taste and smell,' involving a mysterious, 'je ne sais quoi' quality which cannot always be defined but somehow, when it is there, you know it is good.
Really good."
              - Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Really an age-old question and a kind of Pandora's Box. We know we are in an ever-changing world.  Is the answer the test of time as Passow-Whitman suggested at the end of her blogpost?  Is it, like the US Supreme Court's test of pornography the subjective "I know it when I see it?"  Or are there shared and agreed conventions and tastes still today that once were the mark of the Academy?  Does the commercial world hold the answer with the financial test - if it sells and makes oodles of money does that make it good, does that make it art?

Thanks Ruth Keusch for opening the discussion.

 ~ /// ~

Because I can't resist the Thanksgiving season,  I will close with this video clip from the movie "Avalon," directed by former Baltimorean Barry Levinson who captured the immigrant Thanksgiving experience in what I think of as a classic scene. "You cut the turkey without me!?"   This is surely art.

Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Chanukah.