Monday, December 27, 2010

Different Ways of Seeing the Big Picture

Martin Berger and Elizabeth Johns use different methodologies in their respective discussions of Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer.  Johns employs a psychosocial evaluation of Winslow Homer’s paintings; she engages the subject matter of his paintings in terms of Homer’s development as a human being moving through the stages of his life.  Her research is heavily dependent on letters and the reminiscences of those who knew Homer.  Homer’s work as an artist is evaluated in terms of human development and the individual response to social norms and pressures from both family and society.  Martin Berger’s cultural history of art shapes more broadly the struggle for a new artistic identity by understanding the cultural forces which shaped Eakins and influenced his work in the area of gender.  Eakins is placed in a particular cultural context in 19th Century American history, and Berger uses the art, literature, and important events of Eakins’s time to understand his changing vision of masculinity.  There is certainly overlap in these two methodologies.  Berger is obviously interested in how Eakins felt as a man in his day and age, and Johns also engages cultural history in terms of its relevance to the inner life and struggles of Homer.  The cultural study of Eakins appears to be more objective, while Johns’s psychosocial approach clearly has a subjective bias. 
In Man Made, Berger’s cultural art history engages a discourse on gender.  Berger presents the values of Victorian manhood that Eakins faced and how he wrestled with them as a male artist.  Berger presents gender as a fluid and malleable construct in 19th Century American life with which Eakins was subtly and directly negotiating for new meaning in terms of what it means to be masculine.  In the painting The Champion, Single Sculls, Eakins associates the athlete and the artist; he brings himself into direct pictorial relationship with the champion rower Max Scmitt.  Berger argues that Eakins’s own circumstances made him feel like he had failed as a man at crucial periods in his life as an adult male.  His unassailably masculine subjects—from rowers to hunters and boxers—created alternatives for himself and for the culture at large by how he used them uniquely.  Masculinity was too treacherous and difficult for one man to feel completely successful, but the artistic grace of Eakins and the athletic success of Scmitt compliment each other in a way that seemed impossible for one man to accomplish on his own.  A balance of mind and body is envisioned by Eakins, and he also legitimated recreation and a sense of masculine identity apart from work and financial success through his many images of the active male.  Berger’s work on Eakins shows the artist negotiating masculinity at the boundary of culture and nature where multiple meanings for manhood are to be found, shared, and enjoyed in the sanctuary of his art.        
While Berger’s work on The Champion, Single Sculls, is more than adequate in assessing the subject matter of Max Schmitt, it is not as able in the area of technique and the artist’s understanding of his own ostensibly scientific realism.  Leja’s chapter “Eakins’s Reality Effects” tumbles a world in comparison to Berger.  Leja carefully shows that the objective realism that we think we’re seeing in Eakins is not as scientific as it would seem at first inspection.  There is much more than masculinity on Eakins’s mind as the painter merged the experiences of seeing and knowing.  A full and systematic view of nature’s laws produced conflicts and tensions in the artistic science of his realism.  Leja uses the discipline of semiotics (and the philosophical lexicon of contemporary Charles Peirce) to unpack and understand some of what Eakins has encoded in his paintings.  According to Leja, Eakins used signs to portray the scientific knowledge—particularly that of motion—that might not be visible to the naked eye.  He used signs to portray non-apparent scientific truths.  Though Leja’s arguments are intricate and complex, they explain the idiosyncratic realism of Eakins better than any other explanation.  It is hard to read Leja without reflecting on Berger’s simplistic notion of masculine failure at the heart of Eakins’s subject matter.  Leja’s search for the relationship between seeing and knowing is augmented by what Lubin does in his chapter “Modern Selfhood in the Art of Thomas Eakins.”  What we see and what we know also includes the interior reality of being human, not simply a steadily growing scientific body of knowledge.  In the study of the later portrait painting by Eakins, Lubin shows the merger of seeing and knowing to include a psychological and spiritual reality that is not scientific or mechanistic at all.  Lubins uses pyschobiograpy and social history to make sense of the interior suffering manifest in these portraits.  The arguably mixed methodology of Lubin seems better suited to understand the later work of the painter than does Berger’s cultural study of gender. 
A weakness inherent in Berger’s enterprise is his belief that Eakins is negotiating with cultural conceptions of gender because, to some degree, he felt like a failure as a man.  In order to do this, Berger has to move to the periphery of his cultural study and engage issues that are more suited to the psychobiographical approach, which he is certainly doing to some degree.  A letter about finances from Eakins to his father is somehow proof (to Berger) that Eakins felt like a masculine failure.  It is highly possible that Eakins felt like a genius instead—about gender or any other topic.  Given Berger’s focus on gender, it was surprising that he did not address the overt homoeroticism of Eakins’s painting, particularly in Berger’s central treatment of The Swimming Hole as he concluded his work on the alternative masculine community envisioned by the painter.  One can only assume that Berger felt he would be departing from his methodology in order to address a topic more meaningful to a contemporary lens than to Eakins’s own time.    
In The Nature of Observation, Elizabeth Johns presents a journey through the artist’s life in its central stages and important moments of transition.  Her psychosocial methodology evaluates the subject matter of Homer’s paintings as Johns moves through Daniel Levinson’s theory of the social steps of development.  At its best, Johns’s approach is able to address cultural and historical events with a very personal understanding of Winslow Homer.  There is a universal element to the methodology as the reader has negotiated the transitions and issues that Homer experienced and can also identify—maybe not as much as Johns can.  Being unmarried and childless seems much more important to Johns than it necessarily was for Homer himself.  The subjective identification and transference between Johns and Homer, and between the reader and Homer, is the weakness of this approach. 
Johns’s approach is well suited for assessing the spiritual dimension of Homer’s painting, which is significant but simultaneously hard to pin down.  His possession of the book The Great Architect: Benedicite; Illustrations of the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as Manifested in His Works, by George Chaplain Child, is the closest thing to a smoking gun in the personal library of Homer.  Johns acknowledges that other viewers saw an agnosticism in Homer’s paintings, but she subjectively senses the spiritual depth of his paintings.  Whether he is a pantheist or panentheist, or saw science and religion in harmony, is hard to prove.  But certainly one can argue that Homer is meditating on the role of the Creator in natural processes, especially in the latter part of his life when the human figure is less relevant to him.  Yet art historians like Julian Prown have interpreted a moral neutrality in Homer’s painting of nature.  The personal approach of Johns seems much closer to the mark on the God question. 
The limitation of the psychosocial approach is perhaps most clear in what Sarah Burns has done with Winslow Homer’s choice of subject matter.  Johns does not sufficiently address the disconnect between the manliness of Homer’s reputation through his painting and his hardly macho persona and lifestyle in actuality.  Burns explains the hunting images and the rugged man in nature genre as a calculated positioning of Homer in order to sell paintings.  In order to understand his subject matter—and the fiction of Homer and his pre-Hemingway rugged reputation, Burns constructs a social historical study of the time.  Burns argues that the metaphors between the natural world and the business world have collapsed; images of conquest, survival, and adventure in nature are representations of the perils and triumphs of capitalism in 19th Century America.  Homer is trying to sell paintings, rather than simply finding images which represent his own life in its personal transitions of development.     
Johns’s approach is both personal yet respectful of its own limits.  She is subjective in her approach, but Johns does not attempt to be conclusive when she can’t be, even when she feels very strongly about something, such as Homer’s faith in God.  Her methodology respects the developmental arc of Homer’s life without prying into his unconscious, or his sexuality, as Julian Prown does quite directly.  Johns’s subjectivity has limits, and she is faithful to them.  Both Johns and Prown assess the charged content of the man and woman trying to survive together in The Life Line.  While Johns wonders aloud about the man and woman in such close physical proximity, Prown delves into the unconscious conflicts of the painting, particularly the sexual ones.  Johns encourages the reader to speculate about Homer’s unmarried status in terms of the painting’s intimate physicality yet unconsummated reality.  Prown pushes the unconscious conflicts into the open in the language of sexual fantasy, and even religious ecstasy, as the anonymous man rescues the unconscious woman.  Prown is willing to push his visual reading of a painter as far as it can possibly go, while Johns wouldn’t wander into the same territory without a letter or some kind of evidence to support what Prown is doing. 
There are tradeoffs in the methodologies of each art historian in response to an artist.  The social history of Paul Staiti is more useful for understanding The Gulf Stream than is Johns’s methodology.  As she reflects on the themes of mortality with the death of his parents and his own experience of aging, Staiti seems to hit the mark with the scientific understanding of thermodynamics, entropy, and the exchange of matter into energy in the forlorn image of an African American facing his death in shark infested waters.  That Homer could only attempt to understand these scientific principles in the chosen racial category is a reflection of his time and his politics, according to Staiti.  At least with this painting, Staiti’s argument is more compelling.  But for Homer’s work as a whole, a discussion of thermodynamics (both laws), Darwinism, or racial politics is much less able than Johns’s approach to take in the significance of Homer in the entirety of his career, and his life.
Though different methodologies may produce unique insights and even different conclusions about the work of an artist, the different art histories do not need to be seen as mutually exclusive.  The examination of The Gross Clinic by Elizabeth Johns uses the methodology of social history to show scientific advancements in surgery technique, which is completely different from what she did in The Nature of Observation.  It is more similar to Staiti’s art historical method.  Methodology is not some kind of religious ideology or rigid fundamentalism—an either...or frame of mind.  At its best, art history can be a both…and way of thinking that is capable of exploring multiple truths about a painter or painting.  Leja and Lubin use different approaches to understand the non-apparent truths in Eakins’s painting.  Leja uses semiotics to understand the signs used to represent scientific knowledge, while Lubin uses cultural history, particularly photographs of Native Americans and other “defeated” populations, to explicate the interior suffering in the painter’s later portraits.  Two different methodologies help to uncover two different kinds of non-apparent truths.  Methodologies are a means for art historians to converse with each other and a period in human history.  Even at points of clear disagreement, the dialectical tension between art historians can produce a fuller sense of the artist, the period, and the individual meaning of a painting.    

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