Crisis of Masculinity in Art

Man Up! Visualizing Masculinity in 19th-Century America
Addison Gallery of American Art
Phillips Academy, Andover, MA
{Click on image for larger viewing size}

All art galleries are closed right now. Rather than trying to entice you to get to an exhibit, I thought I’d post something that you can contemplate intellectually.

A recent Addison Gallery show was a bit misleading in its title, as many of the works were from the 20th century. Nonetheless, its major point was well made and well taken. It’s no secret that American men have major issues. Men are far more likely to carry out acts of aggression/violence, lie, abuse alcohol and drugs, commit crimes, violate norms, transgress rules of civility, harm family members, objectify perceived social inferiors, underachieve academically, and act without empathy. This isn’t my opinion; it’s a problem that has been discussed since Antiquity and is standard discourse in contemporary sociology. You have but to Google “crisis of masculinity” to see what I mean.  

Is that crisis resultant from nature or nurture? Put another way, is it hardwired in the male Y chromosome, or is it a matter of how boys and men are socialized? No art show can resolve that fiery debate, but the Addison Gallery collection intrigues in that it suggests maybe we should pay a lot more attention to men’s roles in society. It is hard to become what cannot be imagined and, at least from the 19th century on, men haven’t had a lot of choices to help them visualize a broader range of gender roles. More pernicious still, men have been raised to define themselves by what they do rather than who they are. That’s not mere semantics. Even positive virtues such as honesty and character are rooted in an individual ethos rather than social/community soil. That’s among the reason men’s psyches too often fracture when they lose their jobs. (Or have to spend too much time at home during a quarantine.)
What’s striking about the Addison collection is how limited male options have been historically. Men can become soldiers and/or political leaders–like Samuel Waldo’s portrait of a determined-looking Andrew Jackson or nearby statues of figures such as Henry Clay–or intrepid sailors and fishermen risking life and limb, as Winslow Homer often documented. Power can also be expressed in the business or academic realm, as we see in Thomas Eakins’ portrait of physicist Henry Augustus Rowland. Notice the commanding presence of Rowland seated in a chair as others toil in the background. 

Mainly men beat the crap out of each other and display their muscles. George Bellows boxing graphics and paintings are savage and raw; Eadweard Muybridge–a pioneer in photographing motion–showed that Bellows wasn’t exaggerating. Muybridge’s photo also suggests homoeroticism, but the very mention of that probably would have led to fisticuffs in the early 20th century. Rudolph Valentino, who was likely gay or bisexual, probably died from internal injuries suffered in such a fight. Paul Cadmus was irrefutably gay, but even his eroticized male bodies, such as those in “Horseplay,” emphasize powerful muscles. Ditto Walter Kuhn's "Acrobat."  

The Addison also challenges us to consider the double crisis experienced by men without defined roles. It’s hard to conjure a female parallel to Edward Hopper’s lonely paintings that ooze alienation.
William Gropper’s “Unemployed” is another poignant example. We observe men queuing for benefits before the gates of a closed factory in the distance, but the foreground consists of military recruitment posters, soapboxers, hucksters, beaten protestors, and a hooded Klansman with a rope awaiting a convenient scapegoat.

Empty Sleeve
 Perhaps the most striking of all is Winslow Homer’s print “Empty Sleeve.” A young man–certainly a Civil war veteran–sits beside a young woman who has the reins of the horse carriage. The man sits in the seat a woman would usually occupy, but her companion’s empty left sleeve makes him unable to command a horse team. That arm was no doubt removed by a battlefield surgeon and is a symbolic emasculation. To further that effect, note that the woman’s veil flies by his head, suggesting that the ex-solider has been both castrated and feminized.   

It is tempting to imagine these images as mere relics of an earlier age. Would that it were so, but there is a considerable body of sociological data that suggests there is much left undone. If recent history is any guide, we shall see elevated levels of the crisis of masculinity when we emerge from COVID-19 isolation.

Rob Weir

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