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The Function of Criticism at the Present Time
A review of Michael Fried's Realism, Writing, Disfiguration. On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane

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 work.

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.)

This 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 this).

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 traced 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 criticism 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 journals.)

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 it follow:

. . . 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 text itself.

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 disfiguring way.

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 simple.

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 about it.

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.

Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.