Vandover, Degeneration, and Darwinism (Group 2)

Like Norris, George Bellows and a number of other visual artists depicted the modern savagery of the city and potential for degeneration in it, sometimes as a racialized struggle for the survival of the fittest.  Do you see elements of the Social Darwinist and degeneration theory discussed in the slides in Both Members of the Club?  Where do Bellows’s sympathies lie?  How does he see the room as a whole, the people witnessing the fight, and the fighters themselves?  Obviously, the dangers of syphilitic spread and literal madness are not in the image, but concerns about animal natures, decline into savagery, adaptation to urban environments, and challenges facing “whiteness” abound.  It’s a complicated and celebrated image, with a lot of viewers coming to different conclusions about it.   Feel free to look for more information online, but if you do, be sure to include a citation and use a reliable source (Wikipedia is dodgy.). There’s some brief introductory information at the National Gallery of Art. The main point, though, is to articulate your own understanding of the image, mental and spiritual degeneration, and Social Darwinism.

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6 thoughts on “Vandover, Degeneration, and Darwinism (Group 2)

  1. Colston Merrell

    In looking at Both Members of the Club, it’s hard to not immediately look at the obvious racial binary going on (white boxer on black boxer) and rotoscope over it with my own feelings about racism of the day. I could look at the blurred line’s of the black boxer’s face, the way he almost fades into the background without expression, as a means of liberating him from the caricature and implicit guilt that accompanies all of the other faces in the painting. The black boxer looks powerful, in a position of more beautiful kinetic motion than any of the other bodies that we see, and he’s clearly winning the fight. Still, it would probably be optimistic to assume that Bellows is rooting, with us, for the black boxer. Given what the slides noted about the prominence of Social Darwinist beliefs in Bellows’ day and the general cultural mindset portrayed in Vandover and The Brute, it’s hard for me not to feel like most of the painting’s contemporary viewers would have been inclined to interpret it as something of a statement on white degeneracy prompted by urban living, with the slouched paunch and weak, bloody face of the white boxer indicating a return to a more animal or simian way of being that he has evolutionary moved past and is thus ill-suited for. In the (as far as I can tell, exclusively white) faces of the audience members, Bellows provides a number of damning portraits of the same unfettered acquiescence to carnal appetite that lead Vandover to “become the brute” (189). While it’s easy for me to look at these people and view their depiction as critical in a more modern way (i.e. look at these, low, stupid, almost certainly racist people, so excited to watch two men beat the shit out of each other) my hunch is that their impassioned faces (often just as red as that of the white boxer) are meant to indicate a descent to a level of animal, natural-man degeneracy that we are meant to see more obviously in both of the boxers. In other words, this is a painting where the white man/men draw themselves down to the level of the more animal black man, less evolved and thus more suited to this kind of atavistic sparring.

    While I am inclined to imagine (and this with very little research; I would happily be proved wrong) that Bellows’ original intentions with this piece sprang from some very problematic ideologies of his day, I do think it does an effective job of capturing a sort of panem-et-circenses stupor that seems to have hung over urban life in America in the early 20th century (at least, it certainly does in Vandover). I’m particularly taken by the face of the man just below the left foot of the black boxer, smiling up stupidly, eyes unblinking. His grin is chilling, especially so when I consider the ways in which a hyper-focus on entertainment and comfort has only become more central to American life since the publication of Norris’ novel. Vandover is a character who repeatedly shirks responsibility and seeks pleasure, to almost comic effect, and while I certainly don’t share Norris’ notions about degeneration in a literal, biological way, it is difficult to read his descent to lycanthropy without seeing myself, laughing stupidly into a glass display, spending hours scrolling colors, wanting to feel good.

  2. Carl Langaker

    One aspect of this painting that hasn’t been mentioned that really struck me, is the way that the people in the audience seem to gradually blend into one another; the outlines of the countless men in attendance become increasingly faint the farther back we look in the painting. This weirdly feels representative to me of an overcrowded pigsty or animal enclosure in general, where all the men cease to have an identity, and are interchangeable. Degeneration theory seems to support this observation – as my peers have pointed out, the few characters in the audience that we do see are all grossly non-human, in particular the man with the devilish grin and beady eyes. They seem almost animalistic, all toppling over one another to get a glimpse of the fight, as if they’re animals competing for who will get the largest share of food. It feels like Bellows is making a point here about the nature of this audience, and the sport that they are financing. Maybe the fact that the faces becomes less and less pronounced as we look farther back is a commentary on how giving in to animalistic impulses causes one to gradually lose one’s identity, slowly but surely becoming an anonymous person detached from reality?

    I agree with Liz and Annabella in that the boxers appear noble here – they are distinguished from the rest of the crowd through their height, stature, defined muscles, and elevated position (being in the ring as opposed to standing on the ground). Thus, in making this distinction between the boxers, who are bleeding and bashing each other down, and the audience, all of whom are smiling and cheering, I think Bellows is communicating that the sport of boxing perhaps may be a good display of degenerative tendencies. As Andreya aptly pointed out, paying to see two people fight seems quite primitive – it appeals to the more raw and brutish instincts in people. I think these instincts can definitely be classified as falling under the umbrella of degeneration theory.

    I don’t want to overspeculate about who the boxers are, and whether they are forced into boxing or if it is purely out of joy, but something about this dynamic between them and the audience feels similar to the dynamic between Young Haight and the entourage of young men who accompany him to the Imperial on the fateful night that Flossie kisses him. It was quite gut wrenching reading about Haight contracting syphilis, because he is characterized as this very pure and moral character, but he is unlucky and gets corrupted by Vandover, Ellis, and Dummy – this unfortunate night ruins his life, and prevents him from being with Turner. Similarly, the way in which we see the white boxer’s mouth open, likely shouting in pain or gasping for air, makes it feels almost unfair that the audience is smiling and cheering. At least personally, the only thought that comes to mind when looking at this painting, is ‘why is the audience so jubilant?’. To me the audience feels comparable to Vandover and co. when they are at Thanksgiving dinner, all degenerative in their own ways, with Vandover literally barking like a dog – they have lost all touch with humanity, and occupy the weird middle-ground between humans and animals.

    Also, I found it interesting seeing the photos depicting the physiognomy of fallen women and photos of primitive savages – these remind me of the pictures depicting monomaniacs, as if they are intentionally trying to frame the narrative. Perspective is everything!

  3. Andreya Zvonar

    I am not sure what the general public sentiment surrounding boxing was in Bellows’ time was, but I find it very primitive. I cannot understand why two people would want to beat each other up until they cannot fight any longer. Therefore, I find the subject matter itself to support degeneration theory. The figure that draws my attention the most is the spectator just beneath the black boxer’s forward leg. I find his grin scary and devoid of thought. He seems to thoroughly enjoy watching these two men fight, and he does not seem to be giving it any deeper thought. Of all the figures, I find his to support the degeneration theory the most. Kudos to Bellows for depicting that grin so well that one has an immediate aversion to it. Nevertheless, he is not the only one. The whole room is in an unstoppable commotion. The fact that each spectator is white and male offers the same subtle message as Vandover and the Brute – that degeneration affects “respectable” men.

    In regard to Bellows’ sympathy, one might be inclined to say that it lies with the white boxer because he is losing. Indeed, one at first feels bad for the guy getting beat up; however, I think his sympathies (at least mine do) lie with the black boxer. He is the only non-white figure in the scene as well as the most prominent figure. He is caged and people are shouting and yelling at him to most likely keep fighting. Because of this, he is stripped of his humanity and left with nothing but an animalistic association. One does not feel that way about the white boxer. Ultimately, this is a sad reality (one that still exists today) and is the reason for why I think that Bellows’ sympathies lie with the black boxer.

  4. Annabella Twomey

    In Both Members of the Club, Bellows depicts the animalistic savagery referenced in Vandover and paints an image of a realistic example of degeneration theory at work, as two men brutally beat each other in a boxing match while a crowd of spectators watches. I am conflicted on who I think Bellows’s sympathies lie with because I do think there could be arguments for both. However, my initial impression is that they lie with the black man, because he appears to be winning, but we cannot fully see his face, which makes him seem more humble, yet triumphant, in this depiction. Perhaps it metaphorically depicts him overcoming racial tensions, as this was painted during the height of the Jim Crow era. As I did some research on the National Gallery of Art website, it said that this was painted soon after the victory of black boxer Jack Johnson in 1908, and during a time where there were questions on if interracial boxing should be permitted or if it was a threat to the perceived social order. Additionally, the audience appears to be mostly white, and the details on the faces that you can pick out look particularly menacing and evil. While social darwinism and degeneration theory slotted non-white people at the bottom of the social and racial hierarchy, and cited them as a reason for degeneracy and evolutionary downfalls, Bellows’s painting push back on those ideas and show that white men can succumb to vices and degeneracy all through their own choices. Although the white man looks more hurt and beaten, he does not appear to be portrayed as a victim but rather on the receiving end of a “punch” from a well-deserved counter-attack against the racism and anti-immigration sentiments during this time.

    As our class slides say, Vandover “relies on the degeneration theory” with the presence of vices, prostitutes and sexual escapades, and non-white characters being part of the demise of the young, prestigious white man being reduced to animalistic qualities and savagery. Vandover (the character) fully victimizes himself throughout the entire novel and excuses his actions, or turns around his harmful actions as awful things that happened to HIM. Vandover (the novel) being based on the premise of the degeneration theory is a similar concept in that there is the narrative that the prestigious white man is being dragged down to degeneracy, that he is the helpless victim to the vices that compel him, rather than just simply making choices that expose a true animalistic nature.

  5. Elizabeth Srulevich

    One of the first aspects of this painting that I noticed is its ghoulish audience. My eye is immediately drawn to the man, right below the Black boxer’s raised foot, who looks a lot like Jeff the Killer. Most of the audience members have pale, decrepit, jaundiced skin that gives them an embalmed appearance. Another element of the painting that jumps out at me is the fact that the Black boxer’s head is entirely obscured by the shadow. The only visible portion of the white fighter’s head is his bloodied mouth and nostrils, indicating that he’s losing the fight, which might’ve been a reference to a controversy of a year prior — the National Gallery of Art writes that there was a Black boxing champion (Jack Johnson) in 1908 who (in the Jim Crow era) so unsettled “the prejudiced social order at the time that many thought interracial bouts should be outlawed.”

    Given this controversy, it appears Bellows had reason to paint this scene, but I’m also uncertain where his sympathies truly lie. Ironically, him and the white fighter are the only figures in the painting who aren’t screaming animalistically or look like goblins. One might argue the white fighter’s skin looks sickly as well, but to me, he’s defined as a muscular, almost tragic hero. In fact, the fighters, and especially the Black fighter, appear elegant and noble — akin to divine Renaissance sculptures. That said, Bellows was also part of the Ashcan School. This was an art movement in which, according to The Met Museum, members “rebelled” against the status quo of the time by painting realistic snapshots of urban poverty. They believed in “art for life’s sake and not art for art’s sake,” but “while they identified with the vitality of the lower classes and resolved to register the dismal aspects of urban existence, they themselves led pleasant middle-class lives, enjoying New York’s restaurants and bars, its theater and vaudeville, and its popular nearby resorts such as Coney Island.” The article continues to explain that “they avoided civil unrest, class tensions, and the grit of the streets,” which all considered, leads me to believe Bellows was just as much capitalizing on the brutality of this boxing match as any of the audience members, even if he felt he was doing a public service in the inherent act of capturing the scene.

  6. Michael Taylor

    The clash between the white and black boxers dominates the field of Bellow’s painting. While the violence and ferocity of their exchange is evocative of Social Darwinism, it is difficult to tell where Bellows’s sympathies lie: the black boxer’s face is hidden in shadow – his individuality and identity subsequently erased, but the white boxer is also deformed with blood, his skin is cast in a jaundiced and sickly hue, and his body is unnaturally contorted. Evaluated within the framework of Vandover and the Brute, it seems that both boxers express the characteristics of the novella’s fallen protagonists. The white boxer resembles the sickly figure of Ellis, stricken with syphilis and slowly wasting away, while the figure of the black boxer resembles Vandover in his fits of lycanthropy, with a contorted back and with arms and legs ferociously akimbo. It seems that there is no hero in Bellows’s boxing ring, but rather two fallen men forced to fight for the pleasure of the crowd. That crowd, jeering around the feet of the boxers, reeks of evil. Each face is unique in its disfigurement, and I imagine that each one is representative of its own unique vice. At the same time, however, the members of the crowd are united in their present purpose to egg on the two boxers, their two human sacrifices to hedonism. In that, the crowd drives the two boxers, who otherwise would perhaps be an idealized form of man (see detail of musculature), into animalism and ultimate destruction, bearing a collective responsibility for degeneration that Norris might find analogous to that of his “great city”.

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