Book Reviews -- Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America by David M. Lubin

By Rosenberg, Eric M. | The Art Bulletin, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America by David M. Lubin


Rosenberg, Eric M., The Art Bulletin


DAVID M. LUBIN Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. 584 pp., 50 color ills., 140 b/w. $45.00

The most ambitious and rigorous studies of 19th-century American art have of late donned a coat of many theoretical, methodological colors. This garment often speaks itself, rendering myriad claims for interest and foundation in recent debates in critical theory and for empathy with the "new" art history. Rarely, though, does it reveal the substance and materiality of those practical draperies of process and comprehension covering the body below.(1) David Lubin's project in Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America is as much to heighten our awareness of the fashioning of the outer garment as to enrich the revelation of the inner. In short, Lubin wishes to make questions of process and approach mundane, to externalize theory in practice by allowing it to take its place in the quotidian narration of history.

Do human beings, however, knowingly, willingly take the burden of history as practice on their shoulders? We excavate history, chronicle it, narrate it, write it, read it, imagine it, perhaps believe in it from highly self-conscious, temporal vantage points. But we almost never take it, in its myriad forms and as formal entity, into conscious account as part of the baggage of daily life; we rarely if ever construct history as a space through which we must pass in order to transact the everyday--those minimal or maximal definitions of materiality necessary to maintaining the rationality, identity, and embodiment that insure the continued and continuous balance of sameness and difference that we call reality or the present. Why then do we as art historians increasingly demand that our inanimate objects of study, our historical material, do so? Can such phenomena more easily carry the weight of history superimposed? Is there something in their inanimacy that is tailored to resisting the pressure of anxiety and strain that eludes the living subject in his or her encounter with he materials and forms of the past?

The question must be asked: To what extent can objects designed to absorb and impart knowledge through the conduit of vision bear this weight? How can such objects be made to stand in for our own inability to do the same? These are the demands of "context" as it continues to inform the field of art history with both successful and unsuccessful results. These are the questions embedded in Picturing a Nation, a handsome, challenging volume that makes large, socially and politically sensitive claims for a seemingly self-critical scholarly sensibility. Lubin's interests are served by an expansiveness of inquiry that is admirable and perhaps best bracketed by the terms milticultural and empathetic. This leads him to organize his book around case studies designed to expose a wide range of contemporary concerns. Race, class, gender, environment, domesticism, and colonialism all have their day in chapters called, in order, "The Politics of Method," "Labyrinths of Meaning in Vanderlyn's Ariadne," "Bingham's Boone," "Reconstructing Duncanson," Lily Martin Spencer's "Domestic Genre Painting in Antebellum America." "Guys and Dolls: Framing Femininity in Post-Civil War America," and "Masculinity, Nostalgia, and the Trompe l'Oeil Still-Life Paintings of William Michael Harnett." The titles alone offer a certain amount of insight into the author's commitment to some very timely issues. Phrases and words such as "Labyrinths of Meaning," "Reconstructing." "Domestic," "Framing Femininity," and "Masculinity" all foreground the author's sympathy with a host of relevant matters born of poststructural conceptions of history, theory, social relations, and identity politics.

Lubin makes no claims for inclusive topicality. His desire to demonstrate facility is methodological, thematic as much as iconographic. While the book has the appearance of a survey--it covers material from 1800 to 1900--it is a survey of approaches and vantage points.

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