Michael Fried's new study takes
as its starting point a recognition of the inadequacy of two of the principal
ways art critics have approached nineteenth-century American painting
in the past: on the one hand, in terms of genres, and, on the other, under
the rubric of "realism." As Fried is aware, American art has
been inadvertently patronized (first by foreign critics, subsequently
by our own native commentators) by these approaches insofar as they are
what he calls strategies of "normalization." They are ways of
neutralizing the potential imaginative eccentricities or disturbances
of individual works.
The problem with genre study
as it is normally carried on is two-fold: In the first place, it almost
always implicitly cordons off a work in the never-never land of merely
artistic connections and statements and thus marginalizes it. In the second
place, and more importantly, in establishing a series of archetypal antecedents
and contexts for a particular piece, genre studies inevitably minimize
the imaginative intensity and individuality of the individual artist's
expression in the work (by incorporating the piece into a larger, pre-established
tradition of expression in which it is said to participate). In this sense,
genre study is a strategy of containment and control, a way of exorcising
potentially disturbing spirits.
For example, to take one of
the most ubiquitous categories in American criticism, to call a painting
(or a novel or a film, for that matter) a "romance," and then
to proceed to associate it with a particular tradition of "American
romantic" expression is, first, automatically to remove it to a certain
distance from life and expression as they exist outside of the work of
art; and, second, implicitly to discount any expressive eccentricities
or intensities that occur within it. The expressive wildnesses in Hawthorne,
Cole, and Capra can all be controlled with this strategy. Anything especially
eccentric, intense, or threatening about a particular work can be explained
away as being a function of the form. The expressive audacity or extremity
one encounters in it can be shifted away from the personal predicament
of the artist and attributed to the expressive demands of the genre.
Although they may seem to be
alternatives to genre ghetto-izing, conventionally "realistic"
narrative, biographical, or ideological accounts of a work's meaning are
equally repressive of the energies it may attempt to release. Fried argues
that the assumptions that define American realism as a critical doctrine
are, in effect, only variations on the genre patronization of a work.
"Reality" as critics describe it in American paintings, novels,
and films is, after all, only one more set of normalizing, stabilizing,
or distancing conventions by means of which–rather than allowing a work
to assault or wound us–we contain its expressive threat. The doctrine
of "American realism" (like that of "American romanticism")
is a way of hiding from ourselves the strangeness or intensity of the
work of our greatest artists. That is because–like genre categorization–realism
as a critical doctrine involves assimilating a work to pre-existing normative
notions of expression (which are sufficiently stable and dependable for
everyone to agree to call them "reality").
Fried is not attacking straw
men. The dominant line of nineteenth-century American art criticism as
practiced in our own century has been more or less entirely conducted
within this neutralizing conception of expression. One can read through
the major book-length treatments of Sargent's, Homer's, or Eakins' work
published in the twentieth century–from the pioneering work of Gordon
Hendricks and Lloyd Goodrich to that of John Wilmerding and Elizabeth
Johns more recently–and find almost no exceptions to this normative notion
of artistic expression. What is left out of these realist accounts–just
as it is left out of genre accounts–is, again, the imaginative conflicts
and the personal eccentricities and idiosyncrasies that went into the
In the particular instance
of the work of Thomas Eakins, the painter Fried is in the present case
most interested in, Johns' concept of "American heroism" or
Wilmerding's or Hendricks' descriptions of the psychological origins and
social meanings of Eakins' work more or less reduce the paintings to being
expressions of historical conditions or biographical events in the artist's
life. Insofar as they appeal to stable, acceptable, normative notions
of reality independent of the works in question, they assume that, in
effect, we all know what the painter and the painting are about before
we even look at the work. The painting is an expression of the life and
times of the artist. It dissolves into the biographical and historical
conditions that are alleged to have generated it. There are no energies
that escape such a form of understanding, or dare to question it. Anything
that would radically threaten or violate normative assumptions about the
established order of things is left out of the account.
If, under these other approaches,
anything that is a little strange or wild in a work is ignored or explained
away, Fried's goal might be said to be to restore the craziness or eccentricity
to the works he examines. In his own words, his attempt is to counter
"the blandly normalizing bias" of realism and genre study with
a heightened appreciation of what he calls, at different points, the "obsessions,"
the "calculated aggressions," the "monstrosity," or
the "disturbance" of the works he examines. There are many ways
this might be done. The particular tack Fried takes is to attempt to shift
our attention back from the genre to the imagination of the individual
artist, or to put it another way, to restore to the critical description
of the object a sense of the pressure of the idiosyncratic individual
imagination engaged in a vexed and ambivalent act of creation.
As I have already suggested,
there could be no more heroic and valuable task for a critic to perform,
especially within the realm of nineteenth-century American art criticism.
Such a revaluation of American artistic expression is overdue, and Fried
is not alone in his attempt to save the artists he loves from the cozy
and complacent misreadings of over-familiarity: among the younger generation
of critics, Bryan Jay Wolf, David Lubin, and Albert Boime are following
in Fried's footsteps in comparable efforts to save American art from the
blandified readings of previous American art criticism.
But the proof of the pudding
is in the eating, not in the noble intentions of the cook, and one moves
through Fried's essay with a rising appreciation of the failure of his
effort. The problem arises not with his general critical goal, which borders
on being heroic, but with his particular means of achieving it. As the
language I quoted above would suggest, Fried finds what he calls a thematics
of violence, aggression, and distortion in Eakins' work. But the principal
violence documented in his book, unfortunately, is the violence his own
language and procedures do to the works he examines.
Consider the following discussion of the figure who has come to be accepted
as that of the mother of the patient on the operating table in Eakins'
The Gross Clinic. She sits off to one side of the central space
in obvious grief and pain, as her son is operated on. Here is Fried's
account of her:
The extremity of affect
expressed in her left hand's violent contortion is apprehended by
the viewer as a threat–at a minimum, an offense–to vision as such,
though simultaneously the viewer's attention is drawn, as if against
its will, to the thin gold wedding band on the fourth finger of that
hand. This is a further instance of the ambivalence or dividedness
I have already attributed to the viewer's relation to The Gross
Clinic. (The offense to vision is compounded by what almost seems
a hint of monstrosity in the region of the mother's forehead . . .
. I don't mean to suggest that the mother's features are imagined
by Eakins as literally monstrous, only that it is impossible for the
viewer to make sense of what is depicted of her profile and that this
is nearly as disturbing as the clawlike hand itself.)
passage can stand as a summary of many of the essential qualities of Fried's
writing. On the positive side, one wants to acknowledge how lively his
prose is. His criticism is linguistically thrilling in a way that one
would imagine would at least initially keep even the most bovine students
spell-bound at its energy and ingenuity (though it must be admitted that
the frissons and melodramatics ultimately becomes cloying and incoherent
to a reader taking it in larger than lecture-room doses in a book like
But the thrills and chills
of Fried's writing are also the problem with it. Every page, practically
every paragraph, is as overwrought in its diction as this one. This is
more than a stylistic quibble. Fried is committed in advance to a thematics
of violence and disfiguration in the works he discusses (and in his larger
argumentative project is committed to maintaining that painting and writing
in general enact a scene of violent and aggressive disfigurement that
repels and confounds vision) and his language throughout the book merely
plays out the consequences of the general conclusions at which he has
obviously already arrived by the time he approaches the specific works
in question. The result is a case study in argumentative tendentiousness
and the loading of terms.
In this linguistic hot-house,
everything is extraordinary and bizarre. Nothing is in the mid-range of
human experience. If a figure is turned or bent, it is "monstrous."
If a fist is tensed, it is "clawlike." If an aspect of a painting
is complexly visually presented, it is "a threat to vision,"
or it is what Fried, in a discussion of Will Schuster and Blackman
Going Shooting for Rail, calls "explosive" of vision:
The distancing called for
by "pictorial" seeing is further encouraged by the most
remarkable feature of Will Schuster, the incandescent red of
Schuster's long-sleeved shirt, which by virtue of its coloristic explosiveness
repels the viewer from the painting as with the force of a blast.
Insofar as it also explodes the unity that "pictorial" seeing
characteristically seeks to confirm, it recalls the peculiar, anarchic
intensity of the reds not only in The Gross Clinic but in the
early domestic interior scenes as well.
We have seen a comparable melodramatization
of the process of artistic understanding in literary criticism most notoriously
in what has come to be called reader-response analysis–though I
think that Fried's viewer-response theatrics even more usefully can be
back before Stanley Fish to the art appreciative onanism of Pater, Fry,
or Bell. What all of these critics have in common is their tendency to
make the text the site for a series of self-dramatizing imaginative associations
and flights of fancy. It may make for a kind of high drama, but such
ultimately directs our attention more to the performance of the critic
than to that of the artist he explicates.
As Fried's pun involving explosiveness
in the shooting painting suggests, it is the critic who is doing all of
the associating and connecting in these passages, not Eakins or his works.
That is why such adjectival pressure has to be exerted by Fried. That
is why his argument becomes so rhetorical. Precisely because the work
is not authorizing his imaginative investment in it, he must make whatever
interest that will accrue. Fried does it all. The figure of the distraught
woman in The Gross Clinic is disfigured and made illegible only
by Fried's treatment of it–not by Eakins'. In Will Schuster the
gun is pointedly not firing, and the moment commemorated is emphatically
not one that refers to its explosiveness, only Fried's pun does. (The
painting is, in fact, about the patience, precision, and balance involved
in stalking game and aiming at it–about a state of concentration and
meditative poise–almost the opposite of the connotations evoked by Fried's
overly ingenious reading.)
While Fried ponders the "extremity
of affect" he encounters in Eakins, what he doesn't realize is that
the reader is more probably pondering the "extremity of affect"
he encounters in Fried's own descriptions. Why is this critic so overwrought?
Why is he so committed to a rhetoric of violence, distortion, and anarchy
even where it is obviously inappropriate–not only in Will Schuster,
but also in the domestic interior scenes which he alludes to at the end
of the previous quotation which are tonally closer to being meditative
than to being "anarchic" in any respect? (Even if his essay
was originally commissioned to appear in Representations, there
must be more to account for Fried's rhetoric than the current fashionableness
of such violences of language and reference in "advanced" intellectual
I hope I don't seem merely
an ad hominem hit man. Fried's personal psychohistory is entirely
less important than the larger critical issues his work raises. In the
second half of his book Fried switches his commentary from the work of
Thomas Eakins to that of Stephen Crane. His approach to literature is,
if anything, even more tendentious and loaded than his approach to painting.
As an example, consider his comments on the following passage from The
Red Badge of Courage in which Henry Fleming encounters the body of
a fallen soldier and notes, in Crane's characteristically chilly and ironic
way, the touching pathos of death and of our own bodies:
Once the line encountered
the body of a dead soldier. He lay upon his back staring at the sky.
He was dressed in an awkward suit of yellowish brown. The youth could
see that the soles of his shoes had been worn to the thinness of writing
paper, and from a great rent in one the dead foot projected piteously.
And it was as if fate had betrayed the soldier. In death it exposed
to his enemies that poverty which in life he had perhaps concealed
from his friends.
The ranks opened covertly
to avoid the corpse. The invulnerable dead man forced a way for himself.
The youth looked keenly at the ashen face. The wind raised the tawny
beard. It moved as if a hand were stroking it. He vaguely desired
to walk around and around the body and stare; the impulse of the living
to try to read in dead eyes the answer to the Question.
Fried discusses this passage
in conjunction with two other similar passages from Crane's short stories
and uses it to launch an argument that parallels the one he makes about
Eakins involving the work of art as a site for a drama enacted between
writing and the artist's revulsion from writing. His observations about
. . . in the production
of these paradigmatic texts by Crane an implicit contrast between
the respective "spaces" of reality and of literary representation–of
writing (and in a sense, as we shall see, of writing/drawing)–required
that a human character, ordinarily upright and so to speak forward-looking,
be rendered horizontal and upward-facing so as to match the horizontality
and upward-facingness of the blank page on which the action of inscription
was taking place. Understood in these terms, Crane's upturned faces
are at once synecdoches for the bodies of these characters and singularly
concentrated metaphors for the sheets of writing paper that the author
had before him, as is spelled out, by means of a displacement from
one end of the body to the other, by the surprising description of
the worn-down souls of the dead soldier's shoes in the passage from
The Red Badge. (The displacement is retroactively signaled
by the allusion to reading in the last sentence of the second paragraph.)
Thus for example the size
and proportions of a human face and that of an ordinary piece of writing
paper are roughly comparable. An original coloristic disfiguration
. . . by death making [the dead soldier's face] ashen . . . may be
taken as evoking the special blankness of the as yet unwritten page.
. . . [Additionally, the] further disfiguration [of the features of
the face], by the wind that is said to have raised the soldier's tawny
beard (in this context the verb betrays more aggressive connotations
than at first declare themselves) . . . defines the enterprise of
writing–of inscribing and thereby in effect covering the blank page
with text–as an "unnatural" process that undoes but also
complements an equally or already "unnatural" state of affairs.
(It goes without saying that the text in question is invariably organized
in lines of writing, a noun that occurs, both in plural and singular
form, with surprising frequency in Crane's prose, as for example in
the [first] sentence).
It is, undeniably, a virtuoso
critical performance. Fried's tendentiousness carries everything before
it. One admires his ability to marshal his troops so ingeniously and to
remain completely undaunted by conflicting artistic or worldly facts.
In the first place, since he is committed by his argument in advance to
describing the text as a site for writing, it becomes unimportant that
a sheet of paper is not actually comparable in size to a face. (For those
who haven't explored such arcana, I would point out that in my rough reckoning
today in front of a mirror, a face measures approximately only one-half
the size of a sheet of standard typewriter paper, and I would further
add that one of the few facts that we know conclusively about Stephen
Crane's writing is that he used paper that was larger than standard typewriter
size, paper that was approximately legal-sized, making the equation of
the size of the face and that of the paper he used even less apt than
it would otherwise be.)
It becomes further unimportant
that in this passage the face is not metaphorized in terms of the qualities
on would normally associate with a piece of paper (that is to say, it
is not said to be "blank," or even "white," but rather
is called "ashen"), or that the soldier's face and the reference
to paper are not even mentioned in the passage in connection with each
other. Since he is determined in advance to link the blankness of faces
and pieces of paper, Fried can invoke a "displacement" and bravely
move the paper metaphor from "one end of the body to the other."
One's only objection is that in doing it, Fried attributes the movement
to Crane, not to himself. That is what I meant by saying that Fried does
it all. He freely and loosely moves around in the text, and then, by means
of a kind of critical sleight of hand, attributes his movements to the
Finally, consider Fried's treatment
of the relationship of the wind and the dead soldier's beard. Crane writes:
"The wind raised the tawny beard. It moved as if a hand were stroking
it." But committed to a rhetoric of disfiguration and violence, Fried
turns this into an observation about "[the] further disfiguration
[of the features of the face] by the wind that is said to have raised
the soldier's tawny beard (in this context the verb betrays more aggressive
connotations than at first declare themselves)." Fried says "in
this context," but one wants to ask in what context? The controlling
context Fried alludes to, the context that shapes his understanding, is
not the context defined by The Red Badge of Courage itself, but
the coercive context of his own argument about the work. The wind's stroking
of the beard betrays aggressive and disfiguring connotations, because
Fried's argument requires them, independently of the passage itself. The
language of the passage itself is, in fact, not "aggressive"
or "violent," but really quite tender and solicitous. In this
case as elsewhere, Fried reveals himself to be as tone-deaf to language
as the worst of the new critics before him. With his sternly cognitive
attention to semantics, he doesn't hear what Robert Frost called the sound
of sense, or he could certainly never treat this passage in such an emphatically
Briefly put, the logical fallacy
which allows Fried's interpretive violence to be perpetrated on the texts
he examines involves a three-step process: first he hypostatizes a quality
or aspect of a work or passage (for example, the "threat to vision"
represented by the "disfigured" figure of the mother in The
Gross Clinic); then he hypostatizes another quality or aspect of another
work or passage (the "anarchic" and "incandescent . . .
coloristic explosiveness" of the reds in Will Schuster); and
then he relates the two qualities he has described at a more abstract
level of analysis (in this example, so that Eakins' work is said systematically
to embody a thematics of "violent" and "disfiguring"
repelling of vision). The sleight of hand in all of this is that Fried
is almost always comparing his own terms and observations with each other,
not comparing or relating actual aspects of the works in question. Thus,
as he reiterates on nearly every page of his argument, his observations
at one point repeatedly recall his observations at another. The problem
is that the expressive details of one text very seldom recall the details
of another. In the terms of the above example, the color of Will Schuster's
shirt or the alleged explosiveness of the subject matter in the one painting
does not relate to the pain and grief of the mother in the other painting.
Only the terms describing the two things relate. The argument swallows
its own tail.
After such strictures, I again
want to emphasize how profoundly I sympathize with Fried's critical goals,
if not with his practices. American art criticism must be saved from the
repressiveness of realism and the narrowness of genre criticism or the
texts which are the subjects of its attention will be doomed to trivialization.
Fried is right in arguing that these texts are imaginatively more unstable
and interesting than they have been given credit for being in the past.
The general uneasiness created by his criticism is not that it ferrets
out imaginative disturbances in texts that have none, but that the disturbances
it finds trivialize the texts in their own way as badly as the old realist
criticism did in its way.
Put briefly, the expressive
effects Fried describes in the works he examines are alternately either
too esoteric and technical or too eccentric and extreme to be convincing.
On the one hand, as his concentration on the thematics of writing and
drawing suggests, the meanings he traces are frequently so involved with
the merely technical or formal details of the production of a text that
we are back in the old dreariness of works of art being sterilely about
themselves or their own processes of being created. On the other hand,
the thematics of violence and disfigurement that he attributes to these
texts is so excessive and melodramatic that it makes them apparently speak
only to the most extreme or deranged states of feeling and awareness in
us. In either case the text is made irrelevant to the experience of ordinary
life as it is lived by non-artists (and by artists when they are not actually
creating their works). Or, to put another way, in being melodramatically
trumped up with such crude violences of expression and grand intensities
of conflict, Eakins' and Crane's texts are not enriched, but coarsened
and made, in fact, less interesting, less complex, less nuanced, less
intricately and subtly troubled than they actually are. Though Fried would
probably hate my saying it, the problem is that he makes these texts too
Fried's criticism lives in
exciting extremes; he gives us stirring contrasts; but what if the truth
of most of our lives–and the lives of these artists too–is that they
are, however sadly, lived in the middle of delicate muddles of feeling
and shaded conflicts of allegiance? But, of course, the exploration of
that middle-kingdom where vision and work, ideals and realities, imagination
and society are not simply opposed, but rather mixed-up and half blended
together then might then become the expressive subject of these works.
Almost nothing Fried describes in these works connects up with or impinges
on the middling, ambiguous, ambivalent conditions of our ordinary experience.
As a result, what one loses
sight of in Fried's analysis is precisely the complex human meanings he
seems so fervently to want to bring back into the works he examines. If
Johns' talking about the "American heroism" represented by The
Gross Clinic insufficiently recognizes the unstable play of imaginative
energies and the conflicts of feeling present in the painting, Fried's
microscopic focus on the importance of the color red, the concealment
of one surgeon's figure, and the figural distortions of the patient's
body makes the disturbances he claims to see in the work seem merely formal
and therefore irrelevant to the practicalities of our daily lives. In
his tendentious discussions of the technical aspects of Eakins' or Crane's
work–like his lengthy attention to the legibility of both artists' handwriting–Fried
neglects the less dramatic, but more engaging realistic narrative interests
that make their texts matter so much to us. In short, if all that Eakins'
and Crane's work tells us is what Fried says they do, just as if all they
tell us is what Johns and Goodrich say they do, they truly doesn't deserve
to have such attention lavished on them.
The task set for American art
criticism in the future will be to find a way to be responsive to the
practical, frequently prosaic, always realistic, human situations and
concerns with which these works obviously engage themselves, without being
repressive of the destabilizing imaginative and emotional energies also
present in the same works. What one searches for is, in effect, a third
position as an alternative to the two I have described–one not captive
to the psychological and social normativeness and narrative neutralizations
of realism, on the one hand, and yet, on the other, one not willfully
reading into the work hermetic formal references or eccentric violences
of expression. Ideally, what one desires is that the critical explanation
should do what Eakins' or Crane's work itself daringly and complexly does–be
connected with the world of ordinary men and affairs and the middling
condition of our lives, even as it simultaneously offers radical imaginative
critiques of all merely ordinary, normative, social understandings of
experience. That is the double agenda that American art–simultaneously
narratively realistic and committed to social forms of expression, yet
imaginatively transcendental and essentially critical of social arrangements
and relationships–has always precariously maintained. It is the double
agenda which has, I suspect, been the source of so much critical confusion
Excerpted from Ray Carney,
"Crane and Eakins," Partisan Review, Volume LV, Number
3, Summer 1988, 464-473.
To read more about critical
fashions, see the essay "Sargent and Criticism" in this section,
"Capra and Criticism" in the Frank Capra section, and
"Skepticism and Faith," "Irony and Truth-telling,"
"Looking without Seeing," "Art as a Way of Knowing,"
and other pieces in the Academic Animadversions section.
material is a brief excerpt from Ray Carney's writing about American painting.
To obtain the complete text of this piece or to read more discussions
of American art, thought, and culture by Prof. Carney, please consult
any of the three following books: American Vision (Cambridge University
Press); Morris Dickstein, ed. The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays
on Social Thought, Law, and Culture (Duke University Press); and Townsend
Ludington, ed. A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism in the United States
(University of North Carolina Press). Information about how to obtain
these books is available by clicking