John Singer Sargent
takes its place in a burgeoning contemporary genre: the debunking
critical study. There was a time, not so many years ago, when it was a
foregone conclusion that the study of a major artistic or literary figure
was motivated by admiration. After all, why would a scholar devote years
of his life to work he didn't respect? Nowadays, however, contempt and
dismissal are more likely to be the motives. The critic is more prone
to wield a hatchet than to burn incense. Chalk it up to our skeptical
In every possible way, at every
point in Sargent's career, Trevor Fairbrother cuts Sargent down to size,
shoves him off his pedestal, lifts the tapestry of his work to reveal
the ragged underside. In the case of an artist so celebrated in his own
day, and still recognized in our own as being a dazzling technician, this
takes some doing; but Fairbrother realizes that the trick can be accomplished
by turning Sargent's virtues against him. Was Sargent's work popular?
It must have been because he catered to prevailing fashions. Was it technically
virtuosic? The virtuosity must, at least in part, have been mere "cleverness,
dazzling effect, and rather ostentatious fluency" (in the words of
a nineteenth-century French critic whose judgment Fairbrother quotes and
Fairbrother argues that Sargent's
critical success and commercial popularity were really not very different
from those of his teacher, Carolus-Duran, an admittedly second-rank painter
who took the innovations of the day, toned them down a bit, and made them
palatable for middle-brow tastes (even while giving the bourgeoisie the
sensation of participating in a cutting-edge experience). Fairbrother's
point is that both Duran and Sargent knew how far to go to appear to go
very far, without ever really going so far that they left their middle-class
was neither new nor original: it profited from the radical positions
taken by Gustave Courbet and Manet in the 1860s. In comparison, the
art of Carolus-Duran was not controversial because its stylistic novelty
was presented in terms of historical revivals and rediscoveries. He
made a pastiche of Late Renaissance and Baroque bravura techniques
taken from the work of Veronese, Tintoretto, Rubens, Hals, and above
all Velazquez. Sargent accepted this philosophy, and his portraits
therefore embody moderate or centrist art practices.
I quote Fairbrother's discussion
of the relation of Sargent's work to his teacher's at length not only
to be fair to him, but because the passage can stand as a sample of the
argumentative technique of Fairbrother's entire book: The first thing
to notice is that, though their names appear nowhere in his argument,
Fairbrother's writing is informed by the approach of Theodor Adorno and
Max Horkheimer and various neo-Marxist conceptions of the relationship
of the artist to his society. For Fairbrother, as for Horkheimer and Adorno,
the history of art is inextricably intertwined with market forces which
relentlessly compromise its expressions. It is worth noting that Albert
Boime, a previous critic of Sargent's work, has taken a similar approach,
and Fairbrother is heavily indebted to him at many points in his argument.
Even if Fairbrother himself has never read Horkheimer and Adorno (which,
given the general lack of intellectual sophistication in his argument,
seems unlikely), their views are so much in the air–as popularized by
a figure like Boime–that Fairbrother has probably inhaled their values
without realizing it. Such is the nature of intellectual fashions. In
the Marxist scheme, the artist is a kind of closet revolutionary, the
value of whose work (as this passage tells us) can be measured by the
extent to which it leaves behind "moderate or centrist art practices"
(which Sargent and Duran represent) to entertain truly "radical positions"
(like those of Courbet and Manet). In this value system, there is nothing
worse than appealing to the middle class.
The second point to notice
is what might be called the "guilt-by-association" basis of
the argument. Though the passage ends with the assertion that Sargent's
portraits "embody moderate or centrist art practices," nowhere
is this actually demonstrated. In Fairbrother's view, if Sargent studied
with Duran the maestro of middlebrow pastiche, Sargent himself is somehow–how
is never specified–guilty of middlebrow pastiche. Guilt-by-association
is one of Fairbrother's favorite techniques. Sargent is indicted on page
after page for whom he knew, whom he painted, and who admired his work–as
if he and his paintings were artistically responsible for the shortcomings
of everyone he ever knew or who knew him.
The third, related point is
epitomized by the weird lapse of logic in the final sentence. Fairbrother's
whole argument hinges on a completely unsubstantiated assertion ("Sargent
accepted this philosophy") that, in fact, assumes what was supposed
to be proved. Rather than clinch the argument, the "therefore"
that concludes the sentence only makes us feel how circular its logic
is. There is, in fact, no evidence whatsoever–beyond Fairbrother's
own assertion of it–that Sargent "accepted" Duran's "philosophy"
of painting, a "philosophy" that Fairbrother himself has invented
solely in order to be able to indict Sargent because he subscribed to
it. (One wonders what would constitute the unqualified, wholesale "acceptance"
of the "philosophy" of one painter by another–even if
there were such a thing as a "philosophy "of painting.) Fairbrother's
whole argument consists of similar logical loops and pirouettes that
too often turn out to be whirling in circles.
Then there is the passage's
tone. From start to finish, it is utterly smug and knowing. In this passage
and throughout the book, Fairbrother offers almost nothing but one definitive,
unqualified pronouncement after another. If the insouciance of his logic
suggests that the Beal Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine
Arts, Boston, is accustomed to pontificating, to being deferred to in
his pontifications, and not to being required rigorously to prove them,
his tone makes it clear that doubt, uncertainty, or wonderment are no
more part of his response to a work of art than humility and reverence
are. (It only adds insult to injury that the pronouncements, as this example
illustrates, are almost invariably snide or patronizing. When Fairbrother
is in his pontificating mode, it is clear that he is superior to any work
But, finally and most importantly,
I would call attention to the view of artistic creation that is implicit
in Fairbrother's strictures. He makes the creative process seem absolutely
bloodless, mechanical, rational. Fairbrother actually believes that works
of art can be explained with abstractions like "bravura techniques,"
the "acceptance" of a "philosophy," and "moderate
or centrist art practices," and that such categories of understanding
are adequate to plumb the depths of the artistic imagination. On the evidence
of this book, for Fairbrother the creation of art is not a passion, a
wildness, a wonder–an attempt to say the unsayable, to leap beyond one's
own states of awareness–but something more like an economic five-year
plan. The artist subscribes to a "philosophy," formulates a
plan of action, and carries it out in a series of conscious, deliberate
activities. The critic then comes along and reveals the previously hidden
strategy. It is all cut and dried and eminently logical. Daring, inspiration,
confusion, uncertainty, and mystery are no more part of the process than
they are in the production of a Pepsi commercial. It is the knowingness
(first on the part of the artist and then on the part of the critic) that
ultimately makes Fairbrother's conception of art so scary.
Knowingness at this pitch becomes
indistinguishable from cynicism, especially insofar as Fairbrother is
unable to entertain the possibility that Sargent is less knowing than
he himself is. Life is robbed of its innocence. There are no glorious
accidents, no panting discoveries, no endearing awkwardnesses or inadvertences
in this view of it. Sargent's entire career is turned into a series of
critical and commercial "calculations." He not only does nothing
unthinkingly, inadvertently, impulsively; he does nothing for noble, idealistic,
or altruistic reasons. In the painter's equivalent of resumé-building,
Sargent's early career in particular becomes a series of "deliberate"
and "brilliant" self-promoting "moves," "strategies,"
and "gambits" designed to advance his reputation and win him
future commissions. His first major portrait, Miss Francis Watts,
Fairbrother tells us, was done "as a lure for future orders. . .
. It is a decorous and accomplished image of female charm, a work whose
deliberate moderation was a good opening gambit for a newcomer to Salon
politics." A few years later, the submission of two fairly different
paintings to the Salon of 1882, was "a brilliant move on Sargent's
part, because the statements countered one another." When Sargent
moves to London two years later: "The decision reflected his canny
professional instinct for the best place to thrive through painting portraits
of the upper classes." Moving into his great portrait-painting period
in the late 1880s, "conscious of his reputation for eccentricity
in both technique and treatment of the sitter, he now moderated these
qualities and tailored them to his advantage."
Nothing escapes Fairbrother's
notice as a manifestation of Sargent's devotion to his own self-advancement,
so that even the most conventional aspects of his life are cited against
him–down to the way he dressed or lived. "He was adept at the social
formalities of the wealthy and upper classes and he always wore a tie
when he painted their portraits. As soon as he could afford it, his lifestyle
followed that of his patrons: he had servants, and he received sitters
in a grand studio decorated with paintings, fabrics, and bric-a-brac."
This passage can stand as a two-sentence epitome of the snideness of the
book's tone. Fairbrother not only is a master of the coy put-down and
the arch insinuation, but has clearly has confused art with fashion. If
you don't have a Byronic haircut and a neckscarf blowing in the wind,
but wear a suit and keep servants (as almost everyone in the nineteenth
century did), you can't be a serious artist. Artists are not supposed
to have drawing rooms, let alone handsome ones.
Of course, even Fairbrother
recognizes that, in any climb to the top, "calculations," however
"canny," don't always succeed. They may even "backfire"
(Fairbrother's term) on the artist as, according to Fairbrother, they
did on Sargent egregiously at least twice. The first time involved his
remarkable Venetian studies of 1880-1881, when, as Fairbrother tells the
story, negative critical and commercial response persuaded the painter
to discontinue the project: "It dawned on [Sargent] that they were
painter's paintings, and he realized that his personal romance with Venice
as a brooding, mysterious shadow world was simply too unpopular. The subtleties.
. . . were exciting only to painters and connoisseurs." The second
example of critical miscalculation that Fairbrother cites is the famous
portrait of Madame X.
According to Fairbrother, the problem was that Sargent, flushed with his
previous successes, "had grown naively confident about the Salon
audience and the limits to which he could push his experiments with the
conventions of portraiture. He hoped that the public would be awed and
amazed by his interpretation, and instead they seized the chance to mock
the woman and her type." Fairbrother points out the lesson of both
experiences for the painter: In the first case, Sargent painted no more
Venetian works in the same vein, and, in the second, he repositioned Madame
Gautreau's controversial shoulder strap. As Fairbrother sums it up: "Madame
Pierre Gautreau was a watershed in Sargent's career. . . . Paul Arène
predicted [that it] would become for the Paris of 1884 what David's Madame
Recamier was for 1800. But Sargent was not ready to take that chance.
His repainting of the shoulder strap demonstrated an immediate and overwhelming
desire to placate authority. He did not want to spoil his chances for
continuing success and financial reward."
There are several things that
are remarkable about these generalizations, even beyond their cynicism
about Sargent's motives, goals, and purposes. Even if the attribution
of motives weren't so negative, one is still taken aback by the inexplicable
intimacy Fairbrother demonstrates with Sargent's most secret intentions
and desires. Sargent left behind no diary of his thought and feelings,
and very few letters that go beyond being witty, cordial, and polite in
the customary way. So it is worth pointing out that when Fairbrother asserts
what Sargent "decided," "hoped," "realized,"
"wanted," "was conscious of," or what "dawned
on" him, he is indulging in acts of mind-reading (and pulp journalism)
on a par with the sort of thing that occurs in those paperbacks that profess
to tell us what Tonya Harding or O.J. Simpson "felt" or "realized"
at crucial junctures in their lives. When Joe McGinnis or Albert Goldman
do this in their biographies, to avoid lawsuits their publishers are careful
to include legal disclaimers insisting that their books are technically
works of fiction. It must be because libel law doesn't apply to the dead
that Abrams felt they could dispense with a similar statement in this
But even that is not putting
the strangeness of Fairbrother's practice strongly enough. It is not just
that there is not a shred of evidence to support his conclusions about
Sargent's intentions and motives; the little we do know flatly contradicts
them. As a trivial example, the patronizing aside about Sargent's keeping
servants or wearing a coat and tie while he painted ignores the facts
that, in the England of Sargent's day, virtually all households above
the poverty level had servants, and virtually all men (including tradesmen
like carpenters and plumbers) who went into rich men's homes to work wore
coats and ties. Indeed, one of the few contemporary accounts of Sargent's
appearance and demeanor as he came and went from the houses in which he
did many of his portraits actually emphasized that he dressed and carried
himself not like the observer's notion of what an "artist"
should look like, but so unassumingly and unostentatiously that he could
be mistaken for a "tradesman."
To turn to a more substantive
matter, in the Madame X imbroglio, Evan Charteris, Sargent's first
biographer and an acquaintance of the painter, produces a variety of documentary
evidence refuting Fairbrother's three assertions. Item #1: Far
from being "naively confident" about his power to "awe
and amaze" the Salon audience, Sargent was wracked with uncertainties
and anxieties about the painting, which he kept altering up until the
day it went on display. This is borne out by a variety of first-hand accounts
by Sargent's friends. Item #2: Far from trimming his sails to prevailing
critical or commercial winds (evincing an "immediate and overwhelming
desire to placate authority," in Fairbrother's words) when the painting
was criticized after being exhibited, the facts show that Sargent adamantly
refused to take it down or to alter it in any way during the period of
its exhibition. He stood his ground and fronted the storm, making no concessions
and offering no apologies, even after having the full wrath of Parisian
society mobilized against him and receiving the private advice of many
of his closest friends that he should withdraw the work. (It is additionally
telling that once he did repaint the position of the notorious strap,
Sargent refused to show the painting publicly for more than twenty years.)
Item #3: Sargent's subsequent flight to London was motivated more
by pain, embarrassment, and a feeling of critical humiliation than being
a calculated career move. Charles Merrill Mount, a subsequent biographer,
cites evidence that Sargent's Parisian portrait commissions came to a
screeching halt, and that the painter was so hard pressed financially
that he had to let his household staff go and didn't have enough money
to pay his rent or buy art supplies. For refusing to back down on the
portrait, he was blackballed by Parisian society and critics.
In short, the facts reveal
very nearly the opposite of a portrait of an artist in pursuit of critical
or commercial approbation. This is not a question of alternative interpretations
of ambiguous facts, but of completely ignoring the actual facts and substituting
belittling interpretations in their place. To my knowledge, aside from
the previously mentioned Albert Boime, no one prior to Fairbrother has
ever drawn any other conclusions from the available evidence (although
Stanley Olson anticipated Fairbrother's trip down the low road with a
few other patronizing swipes at Sargent in a revisionary biography a few
years ago). Of course, everyone else who has studied the documentary record
may have been completely wrong about everything, but one would think it
is incumbent on Fairbrother to cite at least one new fact as the basis
for his reversal of the accepted version of the story.
However, it is clear that in
this critical genre, one doesn't argue from facts but from pre-existing
ideological stances. Or to put it another way, one's predispositions determine
what facts one acknowledges. It is significant that Fairbrother's specific
critical observations almost never originate from detailed "close"
readings of particular works, but from ideological convictions that he
obviously had before he even looked at a specific painting. Almost everything
he says about particular works can be traced back to three ideological
shortcomings he is committed to finding throughout Sargent's oeuvre
(each of which is itself only a symptom of an even more general ideological
shortcoming: namely, that the paintings enlist themselves "in the
service of bourgeois taste and values"): first, the painter's resounding
popularity with the British and American upper classes, which Fairbrother
sees as convincing evidence of Sargent's bourgeois value system; second,
Sargent's disinclination to embrace French Impressionism or any other
contemporaneous "modernist" movement (and his spat with the
impossibly obtuse Roger Fry about the subject); and third, Sargent's failure,
in Fairbrother's eyes, to grapple with the pressing social issues of his
day. Each is worth a brief examination.
As far as Sargent's undeniable
popularity goes, one can only ask whether it is fair to hold him personally
responsible for the kind of admiration his work elicited. While it may
be generally true that work that is popular (the paintings of Norman Rockwell,
the movies of Steven Spielberg, the writing of Stephen King) is usually
inferior to work which is not (the paintings of Raphael Soyer, the movies
of Mike Leigh, the writing of Stanley Elkin), it does not hold that bourgeois
appeal is in and of itself proof of artistic mediocrity or "bourgeois
values." What Fairbrother and other neo-Marxists forget is that there
have been artists who were both widely celebrated in their own time and
yet indisputably great–Homer, Virgil, Dante, Ariosto, Shakespeare, Puccini,
Tolstoy, Picasso, Robert Frost, George Balanchine. While they may have
appealed to the masses, they were not trapped by mass-conventions. There
is no reason not to think that Sargent might not be a similar case, or
that (as is the case with these others) there might not be things in his
work which are in fact radically subversive of the values of the very
groups attempting to claim it as their own private property. It seems
clear to me that there are fault lines–tersely ironic commentaries on
privilege and power in the form of the depiction of veiled tensions, anxieties,
vulnerabilities–hidden just under the surface of most of Sargent's portraits
that his sitters never understood (and that Fairbrother is also largely
oblivious to). As Fairbrother should be the first to admit, the bourgeoisie
are not necessarily the most perceptive audience imaginable.
The second club with which
Fairbrother beats Sargent is that he wasn't personally sympathetic to
the modernist movements of his day. He summarizes this line of argument
in his characteristically tendentious way in the final paragraph of his
Preface: "A few times in his career [Sargent] was in a position to
participate in modern or avant-garde developments, but his middle-class
need for approval and conventional acclaim always got the upper hand.
In the end he was tied to the status quo of the nineteenth century, and
not supportive of the liberating and transgressive spirit of modernism."
A few pages prior to this conclusion, he rebuts the assertion that there
are in fact modernist qualities to Sargent's work, by implying that any
modernism we do find in his work was there strictly as a "calculated"
gesture. He suggests that Sargent was "a traditionalist who calculatedly
and cautiously borrowed from the Realist, Impressionist, and Aesthetic
movements while they were still considered 'radical' by the mainstream."
There are at least two fallacies
in this line of argument–both so prevalent in art critical circles that
they are worth taking a minute to consider individually. In the first
place, there is the monolithic (and Eurocentric) conception of modernism
that inevitably leaves most nineteenth-century American art out in the
cold as not "modern." One had thought that when American art
finally came into its own as a legitimate field of study twenty or thirty
years ago, the European-bias of art historians had finally been dispelled.
But old ideas are obviously slow to die, and for Fairbrother as for all
too many other curators and critics, modernism apparently still consists
of a very narrow range of artistic mannerisms almost all of which originated
within a few hundred miles of Paris. In the particular case of Sargent,
the explicit measure of his artistic sophistication in Fairbrother's eyes
is the degree to which he is cognizant of, respectful of, and in step
with late-nineteenth-century French fashions. What this view completely
overlooks is the possibility that there could be distinctively American
forms of modernism entirely different from the French. The absurdity of
this way of preceding becomes obvious if we turn to individual cases:
If modernism is an endorsement of the methods and beliefs of French Impressionism,
then second-rate imitators like Childe Hassam and Frank Weston Benson
are the greatest of American modernists, while totally original geniuses
like Eakins, Ryder, Hopper, and Sargent are not modern at all (which is
Fairbrother's apparent conclusion). Is American art always going to be
relegated to an artistic ghetto because it is not French, German, Italian,
or British art? Where are the multiculturalists when we need them?
The second problem with Fairbrother's
criticisms of Sargent's failure to embrace "modernism" might
be called the taxonomist's fallacy insofar as it grants a reality and
importance to a general category or abstract movement that it denies to
individual works and actual artists. To say the obvious, "modernism"
is what might be called a legal fiction. There is no such thing–except
as a convenient shorthand metaphor for understanding particular works
and artists. When an artist or work fails to be elucidated by or to fit
within the metaphor, it is a sign that the metaphor needs to be changed;
it is not a deficiency in the artist or the work. In short, if a painter
as inventive and original as Sargent doesn't fit within Fairbrother's
(or Roger Fry's) concept of modernism, it is clearly the concept that
needs to be revised or jettisoned–not the painter's work. This is apparently
a difficult concept for some people to grasp. I remember being confronted
by a Professor of English who earnestly argued that Laurence Sterne was
not really an eighteenth-century author, nor Jane Austen a nineteenth-century
one, and that their work should therefore be omitted from the relevant
literary survey courses since it did not fit into the "world view"
associated with their respective "periods." It was in vain that
I tried to get him to see that it was his conception of "world views"
and "periods" that obviously needed major overhaul and not the
artists. Like a C-student, Fairbrother lets the concept replace the reality.
He thinks being "modernist" means looking like other, critically
sanctioned "modernist" painters, when it actually means looking
like yourself. (Degas and Cezanne didn't become modernist by dint of imitating
each other or anyone else.) Fairbrother confuses the individual efforts
with the abstract parameters that art historians later induced to attempt
to characterize a wide range of diverse work–hypostatizing "modernism"
as a known, fixed, codified set of stylistic rules and practices, rather
than seeing it as a sensibility that is interesting precisely because
it leaves codifications behind.
Sargent's final failure, according
to Fairbrother, is that his works failed to engage themselves with contemporary
social problems. Thus, in successive paragraphs on the same page, Fairbrother
first damns Sargent's great 1911 Carrara marble quarry watercolors with
the faint praise that: "his images are tender or heroic, but they
do not directly address the more difficult realities of hard lives and
hard labor," and then animadverts about his 1917 watercolor of three
Negroes on a beach: "The idyllic and enticing qualities of Sargent's
treatment allowed viewers to forget the painful structuring of race and
class in operation outside his picture." Fairbrother misses no opportunity
to nag Sargent about the absence of obvious social criticism in his art.
His Museum of Fine Arts murals (which Fairbrother characterizes at one
point as "light neo-Wedgewood eclecticism") lamentably "offered
no point of contact with the twentieth century, other than the lesson
of unbending respect for tradition"–obviously, in the Fairbrother
scheme of things, the worst possible lesson of all.
But Fairbrother is a hard man
for Sargent to please. In the few cases in which Sargent does include
obvious contemporary social content, Fairbrother objects to his manner
of treatment. His depiction of a line of soldiers blinded by mustard gas,
which was made expressly for the Imperial War Museum as a memorial of
the Great War, offers all too visible contact with a twentieth-century
horror, but Fairbrother condemns its style as too sedate: It is "a
handsome frieze-like painting that idealize[s] the horror and obscenity
of chemical warfare into a more general and decorative expression of pathos.
Sargent's genteel, aestheticized detachment from his subject is astonishing."
Fairbrother may pretend to be astonished but we are not; coming near the
end of the book, his shock is all too predictable and all too obviously
feigned and put on specially for the occasion. Sargent is clearly going
to be damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't.
Measured against this ideal
of political engagement in both subject and style, it is not surprising
that Sargent's work comes up short time after time (of course, so would
Fairbrother's touchstone "modernists" Degas, Cezanne, Renoir,
and Matisse–and virtually every other important artist from
Giotto to Joel Shapiro–but he conveniently overlooks that
fact). This is ideological criticism with a vengeance. The problem,
however, is not in itself the
search for ideological meanings in works of art; the problem is the coarseness
of the meanings that are unearthed. Every work of art (whether Shakespeare,
Sargent, or Henry James) has sociological, political, and ideological
implications; the problem is that it doesn't have them in the simplistic
forms that ideologically motivated critics demand. There is nothing wrong
with asking ideological questions of Sargent's work, but the particular
questions Fairbrother asks (and the answers he gets) are simply too crude,
too reductive, too undiscriminating to deal with the subtleties
actual works before him. In common with most other ideological critics,
Fairbrother is so addicted to sweeping cultural views and grand
perspectives that the actual details of Sargent's work get blurred and
its nuances get forgotten. Everything that makes Sargent's work
art–everything that makes it different from and more subtle than
a political pamphlet, an ad campaign, or a television show–gets
lost in Fairbrother's translation of it into the paint-by-numbers scheme
of his ideological
Let me focus on two representative
passages that can illustrate what happens when, in a devotion to stratospheric
ideological generalizations and grandiose cultural abstractions, the critic
flies so high above the work that he effectively loses sight of it. In
the first, Fairbrother compares a vapidly pretentious Horst fashion photograph
of mannequins wearing evening gowns with Sargent's intricate and subtle
triple portrait, The Wyndham Sisters, in order to suggest how little
difference there is between the two: "Horst's image takes advantage
of the parallel strategies of society portraiture and fashion photography.
. . . Sargent promotes the dynastic power of the Wyndham family, and Horst
invents similar associations of privilege. . . . Both men exploit the
female body as object and spectacle in their images." In the second,
Fairbrother unironically compares Sargent to a high-society pastry chef:
"His portraits have an ostentatious role that recalls turn-of-the-century
grande cuisine: they were stunning and delicious showpieces, magnificently
radiating affluence and assurance for an exclusive company. The analogy
with opulent food does not belittle Sargent's portraits, rather it draws
attention to their precise social task–to project a fastidious superiority
by virtue of being ornate, exclusive, and prohibitively expensive."
It's hard to know where to
start itemizing the fatuousness of such passages. Fairbrother is absolutely
right when he argues that the Horst photograph promotes "privilege"
and "exploits the female body as object and spectacle." His
mistake is to lump The Wyndham Sisters in with it. The recent positioning
of this painting over a stairwell at the Metropolitan admittedly forces
the contemporary viewer to encounter it at a certain physical distance,
but you'd have to be imaginative light years away from it not to see that
these are precisely the wrong ways to describe it. Has Fairbrother
ever looked carefully at it? It does not depict figures who are
"languid and sumptuous" (in his utterly inexplicable characterization
of them). It is not in the least about money, status, clothing,
power. (In fact, Sargent clothes the three sisters almost identically
and paints their dresses fairly sketchily precisely in order to minimize
attention to this realm of value.) What he does lavish attention on is
the sisters' radically individualized and subtly contrasted facial expressions,
gestures, and postures–the very things fashion photography minimizes.
So far from being "languid" (as Horst's models indeed are),
Sargent's figures are the opposite of relaxed. They are in extraordinary
states of tension, exposing themselves and feeling exposed, balancing
delicately or precariously on private emotional tightropes. To put it
somewhat abstractly, one might say that The Wyndham Sisters is
a study of the limits, pleasures, and fears of self-representation, a
comparison of the various ways one's identity is or is not "present"
and "expressible" socially and artistically. That is to say,
far from presenting a "parallel" to Horst's fashion photography,
the painting is a critique of the very assumptions that fashion photography
never subjects to examination–since by virtue of being fashion photography
it must assume that you "are" your fashionable clothes, gestures,
and postures, and in fact that there can be no you separate from these
Of course, if Fairbrother really
understood the chasm that looms between Sargent's paintings and fashion
photography, he might begin to realize that Sargent's work is ideologically
informed–though in a far subtler way than he dreams. He might see that
it engages itself with issues much more complex and disturbing than a
trite, radical-chic sympathy with the "hard lives" of marble
workers. Like the writing of his friend Henry James, Sargent's paintings–and
The Wyndham Sisters in particular–take us to the heart of darkness
where the entire overarching edifice of social arrangements and understandings
is seen to be irrelevant to or repressive of the expression of our finest
and freest imaginative energies.
If there is one thing that
reveals more about Fairbrother's attitude toward Sargent than the comparison
of his work to grande cuisine in the second passage, it is his
insistence that the comparison is not meant to be "belittling."
The reason is that, by Fairbrother's lights, art is reducible to
what he calls its "social task." (I would note parenthetically
that the concept of the exclusively "social function" of art
reconciles what seemingly couldn't be reconciled in a previous passage:
Fairbrother's simultaneous demand that art connect with the social structurings
of power in the world, and his admiration for "modernists" like
Cezanne and Degas. The trick is not to look at the French Impressionist's
art as art, but to look at its social origins, meanings, and effects–which
were socially disruptive in various small ways. To an ideological critic
of Fairbrother's stripe, the work of Cezanne, Degas, and the others is
redeemed from ideological irrelevance because it caused a social stir
when it was exhibited–though why the whole, silly social stir is itself
redeemed from irrelevance is never explained.)
An apparently paradoxical consequence
of the crudity of Fairbrother's ideological analyses is that the occasional
nice things he has to say about Sargent's work are examples of
the most vapid and dilettantish forms of art-appreciation "connoisseurship."
That is to say, while Fumée d'Ambre Gris, Street in Venice,
El Jaleo, and other works are condemned as being ideologically
flawed (read: politically incorrect) in one way or another, they are simultaneously
praised for their "charm," "beauty," "sumptuousness,"
"sensuousness," "quaintness," etc. The presence of
these two vocabularies–the one so airy, the other so engagé–cheek-by-jowl
in the same book, frequently in the same paragraph, is only apparently
a paradox, however. The literalism and reductiveness of Fairbrother's
ideological analyses is always going to leave large parts of the works
he discusses (namely, most of their visual interest) untouched; just as,
conversely, the pure aestheticism of his acts of "appreciation"
is going to leave their social and psychological meanings out of the picture.
The one form of analysis brings the other into existence, which is why
Fairbrother is forced to keep jumping from one horse to another in mid-argument.
Of course the true critic's job is to bring these realms–of form and
meaning, style and content, beauty and ideology, pleasure and truth–together,
not to oscillate between them. That is a trick that requires a degree
of insight into how works of art make meanings that is utterly beyond
Fairbrother, however. As I suggested in my discussion of The Wyndham
Sisters, you have to understand both aesthetics and ideology in a
far subtler way than Fairbrother does, to see how they blend together
in Sargent's work–how they are not opposed or contrasted realms, but
are really the same thing seen two different ways.
As should be embarrassingly
clear by this point, the problem with Fairbrother's treatment of art is
that the actual work of art, in all of its expressive particularity, its
fusing of form and meaning, drops out of the analysis. What takes its
place is an interest in all sorts of things that fall outside of the frame,
that preceded or followed the actual creative event: the social, political,
personal events that "caused" the work; the social, political,
and personal events that "resulted" from it; the reception of
the work when it was first shown; the history of its subsequent reception;
the conformity (or lack of conformity) of its subject and style with contemporary
"enlightened" ideological understandings; its affiliation with
(or failure to affiliate itself with) established, sanctioned "modernist"
movements; etc. In this scheme of things, Sargent himself becomes culpable
for his works' favorable reception by the British and American aristocracy,
just as he becomes culpable for the history of their subsequent admiration
by Park Avenue matrons.
Fairbrother presents the type
of the hip, chic contemporary museum curator who clearly isn't very interested
in (or comfortable with) the complexities, mysteries, and obliquities
of actual artistic expression–which is why he spends all of his time
and effort reducing Sargent and his paintings to fashionable understandings
and understandings of fashion. Even before he looks at it, he knows too
much about what he wants a painting to tell him to allow it to teach him
something different from what he already knows. He is just too "smart"
to learn anything....
–Excerpted from Ray Carney,
"Knowing Too Much" (a review of Trevor Fairbrother's John
Singer Sargent), The Boston Book Review, December 1994, pp.
To read more about fashions
in criticism and critical fashions, see the essay "Eakins and Criticism"
in this section, "Capra and Criticism" in the Frank Capra
section, "Day of Wrath: A Parable for Critics" in
the Carl Dreyer section, and "Skepticism and Faith,"
"Irony and Truth," "Looking without Seeing," and other
pieces in the Academic Animadversions section.
material is a brief excerpt from Ray Carney's writing about
To obtain the complete text of this piece or to read more discussions
of American art, thought, and culture by Prof. Carney, please
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
(University of North Carolina Press). Information about how to obtain
these books is available by clicking