Vandover, Degeneration, and Darwinism (Group 1)

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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George Bellows, Both Members of the Club, 1909

4 thoughts on “Vandover, Degeneration, and Darwinism (Group 1)

  1. Paolo Gonnelli

    Although Bellows’ sympathies clearly lie with the white fighter, I found particularly interesting how the two fighters were portrayed. First of all, the white fighter does not seem particularly in shape or fit, or at least not in the way I imagine boxers to be. A sign of degeneration in my opinion. However, the signs of a devolutionary outlook are even clearer with the black fighter. To me it doesn’t even seem like he is hitting the other, but rather biting his flesh off from the neck. His hunched back makes me think of some folklore images of werewolves, and in this sense I can see how there are animalistic traits assigned to the boxer. Moreover, the black fighter almost seems to be naked, or rather, it is not clear whether his bottom parts are covered or if it just a shadow. I think this ambiguity leaves room to interpretation, and as such the fighter could be seen as naked thus putting him even closer to animals. His whole slanted body and him moving forward all help portraying him as a predator devouring its prey. However, as pointed out by others, the crowd also holds an important place in the view of the painting. The action takes place and mostly captures the attention of the viewer from the top center. The composition then leads the viewer alongside the leg of the black fighter, and inevitably the eye falls on a particular face in the crowd in the middle. In my opinion, that face is just “creepy”, I can’t describe otherwise. It represents to me the moral degeneration of the people of the time, it shows some primordial instinctual desire for violence and the gore. The person is enjoying the fight so much that I can’t help but thinking that he is also fetishizing the whole scene, there is a sort of homoerotic distorted pleasure in seeing the two boxers fight. After all, both the male and female black body has been fetishized for a long time. At the end of the day, this painting is not very different from today’s (illegal in most places) practice of seeing cock fights or dog fights. They have the same twisted pleasure and logic embedded in them.

  2. Timothy DeLorenzo

    The composition of this painting is achieves a centralized energy by areas red and green of the same value (color compliments). The darkness around the two central figures gives the painting a without time feeling. The handling of the skin is very interesting. While the black figure is in the center of the composition, the white figure is illuminated in a way the black figure is not, perhaps this points to Bellows being more sympathetic to the white figure. The treatment Bellows gives both figures’ skin is really kind of central in the painting. Without clothing or distinguishable facial features, most of the painting process went to depicting the vectors of their standing and the reflection of light on their skin. I think that this automatically renders the distinction between the two characters as bodily, and most notable by race, even if it was done subconsciously by the artist. We do see the faces of the viewers, however. Bellows is definitely pulling from German Expressionist painters like Kirchner and Ernst, to achieve the clown like madness of the modern crowd. The fighters limbs and gravity meet in this way that make them feel oddly unified as one being. I think Bellows purposely joins the figures in several areas to make the two look like one connected figure. The figures’ muscles and veins create a texture that’s very in line with Thomas Hart Benton. Benton also was an “American Painter” who was interested in social realism. Benton and Bellows both seem very interested in exploring how the social inequalities in America and related to class and wealth. That’s not to say Benton or Bellows are progressive, but I think that, along with racially problematic iconography, this painting is relating the struggles of racial dynamics in America to the economic system surrounding and incentivizing it. What’s more bizarre than the fight in this painting is the swirling, haze of faces that watch on like smiling clowns.

  3. Madison Brito

    I think you can clearly see the idea discussed in the slides of ‘racial others’ “threaten[ing] to pull white manhood down from the highest rungs of the evolutionary ladder toward debility and madness.” The black man in this image appears animalistic, with no distinguishable human features in his face (in fact, it looks pretty much blurred out), and he appears as if he is literally pushing this man down the ladder. His raised arm looks mutated or perhaps like he is even missing part of it, his posture (curved back and lifted leg) only makes him look more like a predatory creature, and he has no blood on his body, unlike the white man. It gives off the impression he is something not human, and a veritable, dangerous threat to the actual human in the arena. I think Bellows’ sympathies lie with the white man – his battered face makes him look like the heroic underdog and his open mouth and lifted arm give off the appearance that his is not giving up, but in fact refusing to be pushed down right in this moment, like he is screaming out a cry of justice and raising his fist like Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club. However, those same features that give him the appearance of fighting back, I think could also be read as madness. The pulling towards ‘debility’ and ‘madness’ is evident here (he literally looks debilitated with his shrinking legs), and perhaps he is becoming more animalistic, less civilized in his fighting back. The faces of the audience members look thrilled and enticed, only fodder for the battle. Their features are distorted to look more cartoon-like, and remind me of some of the figures in Spirited Away (pardon all the movie references). They are clearly there for entertainment, even enjoyment, and it is as if they represent society, encouraging and propagating the downfall of this white man.

  4. Karianne Laird

    Bellows famously claimed that, “the atmosphere around the fighters is a lot more immoral than the fighters themselves.” (https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/american-art-to-wwii/ashcan/a/bellows-both-members-of-this-club) When first looking at this painting, I instantly noticed how Bellows exaggerated and distorted the faces of the onlookers. They grimace, shout, and are clearly enthralled by the drama before them. One man is grinning with glee as he watches these men hurt each other. The focus on the audience’s reaction can point to Bellow’s concerns about crowd psychology and the enjoyment of savagery in the crowded and lawless cities. There was a fear that urban pressures, such as prostitution and gambling, threatened honorable men into degeneration – transforming them into their animalistic, primal selves. This Darwinian understanding of degeneration can also be seen in the white boxer’s wolf-like features, where he has regressed to his primal state. Furthermore, he is being overpowered by a black man (who according to Social Darwinism and degeneration theory, remained behind the white man in developmental stages). This can be seen as yet another example of how urban society was crumbling, where the “rightful order” was turned up side down. Thus, it seems Bellows is trying to emphasize the savagery of the modern city life.

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