Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 300 pp.; 24 color ills.; 84 b/w. $49.95
Looking Askance is an important contribution to American art studies in two ways. First, Michael Leja's book shows how a variety of artists structured their work around the practice of deception so dominant between 1869 and 1918. Going well beyond the usual suspects P. T. Barnum and William Harnett, Leja discovers a discourse of deceit pervasive enough to make all the social world, and much of the art embroiled within it, one hard, glimmering hallucination. In a time when eyesight could no longer be trusted and the social world teemed with confidence games, artists did one of two things. They either embraced the ubiquity of trompe l'oeil life, taking it as a starting point for their own art, as in the cases of Harnett or Marcel Duchamp, or they reacted against it with a rhetoric of realism so vivid as to be paradoxically not quite believable when beheld closely, as in the case of Thomas Eakins. Leja's connections--his way of drawing disparate artists like these together under the same rubric--make for exemplary, field-opening work.
The Eakins chapter is a good example. By this point it would seem difficult for any interpretation to make us see such a familiar painting as The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) anew. Yet that is what Leja does. Reading the image against the culture of deception, Leja focuses on the painting's oddly unrealistic details, especially the pools left by the oars of Schmitt and Eakins himself (shown in the middle distance in a self-portrait as a rower). These pools are far too numerous and close together to mark the action of the two men's oars. What they suggest to Leja instead is Eakins's need to supplement observed phenomena with a semiotics of truthfulness. Eakins knew that appearances alone were deceiving: he needed to indicate where his rowers had come from and where they were going in order to secure his picture's realism, even if that information--the multiple closely spaced pools of water--was not itself realistic. Otherwise, his picture would be narratively obscure even in its ostensible perceptual clarity. In a reading like this, Leja goes far beyond the conventional approbation for Eakins's realism and instead discovers its quirkiness--and, more than that, the cultural pressures out of which that odd visual language emerged. Eakins in a dialogic field is much more interesting than Eakins alone.
Similarly, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain takes on a new life when Leja connects this founding gesture of conceptual art to crude traditions of American fraudulence. The readymades Duchamp began producing in the United States are a type of Barnumesque exhibit--an invitation for the viewer to decide, Is it art or is it not art?--and indicate Duchamp's savvy awareness that his new country was the place of "advertising, mass media, and commercial spectacle," much of it built around deception, even as Duchamp himself became a curiosity, a freak on exhibit, in this world of relentless display (p. 234). His works hark back to saloon art as much as forward to modernist art practice and criticism. Conjuring Harnett as much as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Fountain and other Duchamp works were "humbug for highbrows" (p. 234).
So, too, in another register, were aestheticist paintings such as George Brown Fuller's Illusions, which portrayed the pursuit of delicate aesthetic objects as structurally similar to the consumer's quest for top-shelf products. Both the aesthete and the consumer learned the "appreciation of illusion," the visual languages of brazen commercial desire and aesthetic appreciation coinciding, each instancing the modern poetics of deception, wherein objects and states of being just out of reach forever exude a cloudy penumbra of ineffable value (p. 181). As a result, artists like Fuller and Thomas Wilmer Dewing become vividly interesting in Leja's account, since they are read against their intentions as the unwitting purveyors of an aesthetics of longing deeply rooted in contemporary accounts of consumption. In these cases and others, Looking Askance insightfully brings together disparate objects, creating innovative histories linking different types of ambitious art to the deceptions of commercial mass culture.
Following Leja's generous statement that he is opening up a field of investigation rather than closing it down with definitive case studies, the reader can quickly see how other familiar works would take on a new life in dialogue with deception. Eadweard Muybridge's motion photography, for example, might be read profitably against the spirit...