Vandover, Degeneration, and Darwinism (Group 4)

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

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

  1. Jacob Morton

    As my classmates have all mentioned, it’s pretty safe to say that the white boxer is losing. Even examining the manner in which he is painted–the form and angles of his body–it is clear that he is in no condition to continue a bout with this steam engine of a fighter. The strokes outlining his figure are wavy–unpredictable. Observe the way in which his back sort of layers over itself–one ripple after the next; as well as the thick, oddly pliable, yet mostly rectangular shapes that make up his calves and ankles. Their contortion wordlessly gives off the impression that both of his legs are about to buckle. Above all else, I noticed the way his bloodstained stomach droops over the top of his trunks. In my mind, the white boxer is older–frailer–and is being pummeled by a more youthful fighter. Indeed, compare him to the way the Black boxer is painted. His figure is curved, not rigid, yet sheer and continuous nonetheless. His body powers directly into the white boxer in an unwavering arc–giving off the impression of an unstoppable force. There are no ripples/layers or droops; it looks like every move the Black boxer is making is predetermined and achieved flawlessly. The epitome of force. Even his trunks appear to be tighter than his opponent’s. From the way his body is positioned–the strange choice to muddle his face with perspective and shading–the Black boxer appears more animalistic than human. A single-minded beast. The audience grinning sadistically gives the painting even more personality. I could read either take on where sympathies lie. On the one hand, I agree with my classmates that Bellows seems to be putting a lot of work into depicting the white boxer as a pained victim; the frailty and age aspects I added certainly help that argument. On the other hand, a perhaps more modernist take could read the Black boxer as a work horse for white entertainment–a man who’s forced to mercilessly beat the life out of another in front of sickening smiles. He has become dehumanized–a beast of burden.

  2. Rachel Horowitz-Benoit

    As others have pointed out, this is an interesting picture because of the brutal, grotesque imagery. It really does feel like it exemplifies a degenerative process. The Black man leaps almost feline-like, and his face is totally obscured. In contrast, the white man is covered in blood to the point that his upper half almost resembles a half-skinned carcass; he looks more meat than man. The jeering faces in the crowd are less animalistic but no closer to realistic portrayals of people.

    I think the racial aspect is very interesting. I agree with Henry that the obstruction of the Black man’s face dehumanizes him to a certain level, although I think the blood on the white man’s face similarly obstructs him from identification. Furthermore, I was interested in the fact mentioned in the short passage from the National Art Gallery website that Bellows was most likely alluding to recent heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who was African American. As a result, I don’t want to ignore the subversive power of painting a Black athlete’s victory, and if the Johnson figure is dehumanized, then so is his bloodied opponent and the uncanny milieu behind him (to a certain extent – I also think it’s significant how much he seems to fade into the black background, whereas the white fighter is illuminated).

    I’m thinking about this victory in the context of Social Darwinism, specifically Geary. In Vandover, he is the epitome of Darwin’s select, someone who is fully equipped for the modern capitalist system. The fact that he is not necessarily a good guy may be a critique of the system itself, although it’s unclear where the fault lies in the downfall of certain characters, like Vandover, who seemed doomed from the start by their own personalities as well as the external world. While I think Bellows’s sympathy is more ambivalent in this painting, I in no way think this painting is somehow celebrating the Black man’s victory. In this way, I think it’s interesting to hold up in comparison to Social Darwinism the parallel fear that those who get to the top might not be white. White man’s supremacy is assumed in every instance of racial “biology,” yet their status was always so tenuous, their seat atop the social hierarchy vulnerable to any changes in the moral structure of society. It seems that the flexibility of this psuedoscience allowed it to correspond to any context; it’s a theory that constantly proves itself both by being right and wrong.

  3. Alexander Merrill

    When looking at this painting, my focus is immediately drawn to the two fighters. I see the white man as tired, in pain, and no longer able to go on. He seems ready to drop to his knees, his face is covered in blood, he is making a pained expression, and he seems to be at the mercy of the black fighter’s next move. The black man’s knee looks to be close to connecting to the white man’s crotch which I would imagine as the final blow in fight. Furthermore, the positioning of the fighters shows the black man in a dominating position, almost as if he is enveloping his opponent. This dynamic definitely reminds me of the racial aspects of degeneration and social darwinism we read in Vandover. Similarly, Bellows’ sympathies seem to lie with the white man. The biggest piece of evidence to me is the depiction of the white man’s face and the pain he is in, while the black man’s face is a sort of blurry dark area as opposed to a clearly defined form. This seems dehumanizing to me, which leads me to believe that Bellows’ definitely sympathizes with the struggle he deems the white man to be in.

    The crowd of people watching the fight is an intersting visualization of the degeneracy we read about in Vandover. While I did not read the book with this type of visual in my mind, I almost wish I did. The lack of individualization in the features of the people in the crowd, combined with their demonic faces and smiles – one man even seems to have blood drooling out of his mouth – creates a much stronger emotional reaction to the state of degeneracy in which the crowd is involved and leads to a more dehumanizing conception of these people than I had from reading the novel. The little indivudlization there is however further exacerbates my perception of degeneracy. Some people have wide, sickly smiles, seemingly engrossed and overjoyed by the violence in front of them, while others seem angry and violent themselves, for example the main standing in the ring on the left side – he almost seems ready to join the brawl as well. This variation in motivation reflects my own perspective on the type of mental and spiritual degeneration present in Vandover. It seems that for different people, different aspects of modern society drive them to this type of behavior. For some, it might be a morbid curiosity for violence and the primal urges associated with it as a form of entertainment and a break from the civilized and progressive society they live within. For others, it might be an outlet for their anger and rage they feel at the changing attitudes and societal norms that they may be unable to keep up with.

    Overall, I find that Bellows’ painting is very complementary to the reading we did this week and definitely helps to further my perception of the themes of social darwinism and degeneration that are included in both the novel and the painting.

  4. Henry Mooers

    Both Members of the Club is an interesting representation of many of the themes also present in Vandover. One of the most prominent themes evoked in my mind by this piece was the concept of degeneration.

    In general, the human figures in the piece are, to me, oddly drawn. Their faces are for the most part blurry, somewhat amorphous shapes with little detail. This depiction gives me a sense of motion and turmoil, especially in the crowd. In my opinion, by creating a painting with many human figures, but not giving the characters any human features, Bellows develops a sense of animalism. In this way, I found that the general style of drawing evokes some of the tenets of degenerative theory discussed in the slides.

    The foreground of the image also evokes a similarly chaotic sentiment. The white fighter’s face is covered in blood. The black fighter appears to be charging directly into him; potentially about to knock him over. The scene is chaotic in these regards, and also exudes some animalistic qualities.

    I feel as though the question of Bellow’s sympathies is an interesting one to ask here. My mind immediately asks: “with which fighter do his sympathies lie?”. To answer, I compare the depiction of the respective fighters. On the left, the white fighter’s face is bloody. He looks tired, and ready to fall down in the ring. Note that we the viewer are given a clear picture as to the expression on the man’s face. We can vaguely make out his mouth, and the pain that he is in. On the right, the black fighter appears to be dominant, in the midst of a striking motion, and potentially on the verge of a victory. We do not, at least from this angle, see as many visible signs of wounds on his body as se do on the white fighter’s body. Another thing we do not see is the man’s face. This feels like a device by bellows to create obstacles for the viewer to be able to sympathize with him.

    In an odd fashion, the above leads me to believe that Bellows attempt to humanize the white fighter more so than the black one. In this regard, I would argue that his overall sympathies lie with this individual in the painting.

  5. Gordon Lewis

    The struggle between these two fighters definitely takes on the racial aspect of Social Darwinism and some of the themes of degeneracy we saw in Vandover. There are a few obvious things to point out: the positions of the fighters themselves are important, as we see the white man struggling to hold his own against his black opponent. The white fighter is bloodied and on his heels, while the black fighter looms over him in a powerful stance, obviously referencing the idea at the time of non-white races as primitive, animalistic humans. Another interesting observation is the use of light; we see the white fighter’s face clearly, and his entire body is illuminated in a glow of color, whereas the black fighter’s face is obscured and purposefully excluded to further hammer home this point. To me, makes the white fighter seem like a tragic figure and reminds me of old biblical paintings. Even looking at this painting out of context of Vandover, you would be hard pressed not to see the racist overtones present.

    Most interestingly to me, though, is how the crowd is portrayed in this situation. The audience is full of white men enjoying the spectacle of the fight, with depraved, sometimes demonic looks on their faces. To me, this represents the kind of men described in Vandover – gentlemen, who during the day go about their business and at night descend into the seedy underworld of the city to gamble their money on underground boxing matches. The men in the crowd appear to be more sinister and “degenerative” than the two fighters, forming one mass of ghoulish creatures clamoring over the two fighters. I can only imagine how much this would have shocked a person at the time it was painted, as it is pretty disturbing to me today.

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