Vandover, Degeneration, and Darwinism (Group 3)

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

6 thoughts on “Vandover, Degeneration, and Darwinism (Group 3)

  1. Joseph Levine

    Like Will mentions in his comment, I was struck by the content of the painting as it relates to the nature of sport. Here two men, one white and one black, bludgeon each other in front of a transfixed audience. Like others have mentioned, the contrast between the two fighters’ races points to the prevalence of racist conflict at the time, which illustrates the prevailing Social Darwinist theory. But what struck me initially was the nature of the actual event. Boxing and other combat sports, whose goal is essentially to see who can wound their opponent most significantly, may serve as \both an important manifestation of degeneration theory as well as a counterpoint. The painting here seems to point to the former; the fighters’ struggle is gruesome, and the faces are obscured and distorted throughout, indicating the degenerative nature of the spectacle. Thus, in a literal sense, Bellows seems to condemn the boxing match as being an abhorrent display of moral decline. More abstractly, this points to Bellows’ possible concern for the clash of different races imposed by theories of Social Darwinism.

    In terms of how the boxing match itself represents degeneracy, I’m inclined to believe it exists (if degeneracy theory had merit) to potentially mitigate its harmful effects. Personally, I enjoy watching combat sports like this boxing match, despite the brutality. I watch them most of all for the tact, grit, and athleticism, but watching two people fight is as mesmerizing as it is horrifying. It is strangely cathartic to watch two people fight each other for several minutes, hear a bell ring, and then stop and shake hands. It’s as if I am watching two men give in to their primal aggression, and then return to civility thereafter. This vicarious experience of primal impulses is powerful, and I think in a way could theoretically help relieve some of the dangerous drives that proponents of the degeneration theory are wary of. So, perhaps the two men fighting in this painting are helping to alleviate the primal urges of those in the crowd. I don’t think that this was Bellows’ actual intention, but this is at least my personal experience of the depiction.

  2. Alexandra Lawson

    Bellows illustrates aspects of both Social Darwinism and degeneration theory in “Both Members of the Club”. Most obvious to me is the animalistic depiction of both the fighters and individuals in the crowd. The faces of some individuals in the crowd can be made out, but they all appear warped, many with animalistic expressions. As I look at the faces, I am filled with a certain fear, as they appear evil and self-indulgent. The man grinning in the center of the painting has one of the most disturbing expressions, as he seems to take excitement in the gruesome battle before him. In comparison, it is difficult to make out the faces of the fighters at all. Bellows has left out the face of the black individual all-together. In line with degeneration theory, Bellows seems to be trying to illustrate that the fighting individuals are further along this path of ‘degeneration’ as compared to the crowd. Perhaps the painting is supposed to illustrate individuals in the crowd as not as ‘degenerated’ as the fighters, but as taking steps in this direction. In many ways this painting reminds me of Vandover’s fall into gambling: “It was a veritable mania, a wild blind frenzy that knew no limit” (153). It is easy for me to imagine Vandover as one of the individuals in the crowd at this point in his life, as he seemed to be encapsulated by the same urges and emotions that the crowd is in this image

    The addition of race in this painting adds a further complexity to this image. The black boxer appears to be winning the match. As William discussed, the racial hierarchy of the 20th century might suggest that the white man would win, as he would be seen as the superior fighter. However, I think that Bellows choice to have the black boxer winning was an intentional choice, potentially hoping to illustrate the collapse of this hierarchy in the animalistic world. Certainly, this illustration is extremely troubling. I am also troubled by the fact that the black boxer is depicted considerably more animalistic as compared to the white individual, as this really illuminates views of hierarchy and Social Darwinism at this time. Ultimately, this painting encapsulates a animalistic evil as was in line with Social Darwinist and degeneration theories of this time.

  3. Haley Glover

    Bellows appears to paint degradation theory into his “Both Members of the Club” piece. There are several ways to look at the piece however that point to Bellow’s support of the theory but also a possible refusal of the concept. As the slides state, Degradation theory believes humans can devolve and begin displaying animalistic qualities. The piece displays a savage fight between men, surrounded by cheering spectators. With the addition of the Black opponent, one could argue that Bellows is suggesting that that the animalistic violent tendencies of the white man are a result of the degradation of the Black man. Because the Black opponent is clearly winning, it would appear to follow recapitulation theory that this member of a racialized group is more animalistic, less evolved.
    However, alternatively the crowd surrounding the fighters tell a different story. The majority of spectators are white, most red in the face with excitement at the fight before them. While the men fighting are participating in sport, the spectators have no excuse for their sheer interest in animalistic tendencies. Such excitement is in line with degradation theory to an extent. The spectators may be be depicted as devolving into the animal tendencies of a herd, grinning and urging their fighter on, at the detriment of their opponent. Yet, because the grinning faces are white, Bellows could be pushing back against degradation theory’s tendency to place blame on racialized groups for the devolution of white men. Instead, Bellows appears to depict the white men’s encouragement of the fight and highlights their role in sustaining immoral behavior.

  4. William Koch

    Michael presents an interesting analysis on the racial synecdoche of sports matches, one that I agree with. Particularly in sports that rely on individual rather than team efforts, that which an athlete represents becomes more scrutinized. In the case of the painting, a white boxer represents societal whiteness and a black boxer represents societal blackness. Within that, there is the implicit, segregated racial hierarchy of the early 20th century, one that expects a white person to triumph over a black person. The white boxer in the painting, however, is clearly overwhelmed, noticeably bleeding and, judging on facial expression and posture, struggling to to overcome the strength of his black opponent. I think that based on the racial components associated with social darwinism, this image would challenge the white understanding of a racialized hierarchy that views whiteness as immaculate and blackness as primitive. What’s interesting in the painting, even more than the action of the fight, is the reaction of the spectators who observe the fight. As far as I can tell, all the spectators in the painting are white, yet the reactions are somewhat mixed. On one hand, you have faces like that in the bottom middle with a wide grin, seeming to brutishly enjoy the violence of the bout regardless of the outcome. Then you have faces that demonstrate horror at the violence and the fact that the white boxer, the representation of their ethnicity and themselves, is about to be taken down. You also have the two figures on the left who appear to be entering the ring, perhaps to assist the flailing white boxer and interfering in the match to preserve their whiteness. The racial component of the match makes it more than just sport, but rather a representation of dominance within race.

  5. Dan Cielak

    George Bellows’ Both Members of the Club echoes Social Darwinism and degeneration theory in a few subtle ways. At first glance, certain aspects of the painting readily expand upon the theme of natural selection that Norris grapples with throughout his novel. It seems as though the fighters, with their defined muscular features, are merely a spectacle for the audience. They are admired only for their physical might, almost like gladiators. In the novel, physical attributes often mark the peaks and troughs of a character’s trajectory. Examples of this include Flossie’s physical degradation as well as Vandover’s, whose excessive indulgences inevitably lead him to the shameful and tattered appearance he carries while he pleads for a job from Geary. Thus, while one can see Bellows as elevating the status of the fighters in his depiction of them, I see Bellows as degrading the fighters by emphasizing their physical strength as a form of entertainment for the audience. Likewise, when I look at the audience, I see the large grins of people who are objectifying the fighters. In the course of his demise, I would expect to see someone like Vandover sitting in the audience, foolishly gambling away the last of his remaining bonds.
    Between the two fighters, Bellows seems to equip the black fighter with slightly more leverage as he appears to be on the offensive, about to take the white fighter down. Noticeably, however, he does not give the black fighter a face as he is turned away from the point-of-view of the image. This could be interpreted as an attempt to either dehumanize the black fighter, or valorize his efforts.

  6. Michael Frank

    Bellows’s painting brings to mind a particularly haunting portion of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings regarding Angelou’s memory of a Joe Lewis fight. Though set several decades later, it speaks to the stagnant state of race relations in the early 1900s and the synecdoche within sports matches in terms of ethnic domination. In brief, Angelou recalls an evening listening to Joe Lewis win a fight against a white opponent and the triumph that meant for her community. However, she notes that she was always sure to make it home early those nights because a victory from the black boxer would almost certainly result in violence from the white locals in retaliation. They resented Lewis for showing the strength and the resilience not of non-white athletes, but of non-white individuals as a whole.

    Based on a text like ‘Brute’ it is hard to imagine that an adopter of Darwinist hierarchies would readily separate athletic prowess and racial standing. That said, the mostly white crowd in the painting doesn’t seem to have one uniform reaction. A notable face in the front is grinning ear-to-ear at the ring (maybe he had money on the fight), but other faces are less enthused. Perhaps Bellows just doesn’t see it as a singularly compelling issue. Angelou speaks to a powerful truth about the ability for an individual to physically dominate serving as a victory or loss for an entire race, but this painting somewhat deviates from that idea. That said, I feel like Norris’s Darwinism may have permeated the communities that tormented African Americans after Joe Lewis or Jack Johnson fight, whether or not they knew it.

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