Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview
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alternate courting and whipping each other. Boxing, as exposed and powerfully accentuated as it is in Stag at Sharkey's, is male to male masochistic foreplay, craved and detested, on public display.

The force of Stag at Sharkey's lies not only in the artist's rigorous and remarkable manipulation of paint and his magnification of boxing's eroticism and brutality, but also in Bellows's treatment of an athletic event that struggled to maintain itself despite its illegal status. The desire for fighting events, which served a ritual function, was greater than the strength of the law. In the early part of the twentieth century, boxing provided many men with a forum for understanding and reinforcing a conception of masculinity that was constructed out of conflicting methods and desires: individual authority and control were gained by resisting public authority, sensuality and intimacy were intertwined with violence, and physical perfection and admiration were countered by destruction.


Revised by the author from Smithsonian Studies in American Art (Spring 1988). Reprinted by permission of the author and the National Museum of American Art.

A version of this essay was first presented at the Tenth Annual Whitney Symposium on American Art in April 1987. For their comments on the original essay, I wish to thank Diane Kirkpatrick, Janice Simon, Richard Rand, and Thomas Crow. The essay is reprinted here with only slight modification.

For background information on George Bellows, see: Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America ( New York: Reynal & Co., 1965); Donald Braider , George Bellows and the Ashcan School of Painting ( New York: Doubleday & Co., 1971); E. A. Carmean , John Wilmerding, Linda Ayers, and Deborah Chotner , Bellows: The Boxing Pictures ( Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1982); and Lauris Mason , The Lithographs of George Bellows ( New York: KTO Press, 1977).

Since the publication of this essay on masculinity and boxing at the turn of the century, numerous studies on the topic have appeared; particularly relevant books include: Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History ( New York: The Free Press, 1996). For the most recent book on George Bellows's art see Marianne Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). Of the numerous studies on Thomas Eakins, a notable essay related to my analysis of Eakins's photographs is by Whitney Davis, "Erotic Revision in Thomas Eakins's Narratives of Male Nudity," Art History, vol. 17, September 1994, pp. 301-41.

See Donald J. Mrozek, Sport and American Mentality: 1880-1910 ( Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983), p. 207.
Quoted in Mason, Lithographs, p. 61.
Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt--An Autobiography ( New York: Macmillan Co., 1913), p. 49.
Letter from Bellows dated 10 June 1922 to William Milliken, then director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Now in the archives of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
See "Boxing Flourishing Here," New York Times, 16 November 1905, p. 12.
For an account of the Dempsey and Firpo fight, see Jack Dempsey, Dempsey ( New York: Harper & Row, 1977).
For an excellent study of boxing in America in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, see Elliot J. Gorn , The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America ( Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).
The positive nature of boxing, as distinguished from prizefighting, and the paradox of such a distinction, was stated in a New York Times editorial of 7 April 1909 entitled "Prizefighting Not Easy to Suppress." On this day, prizefighting was called "unquestionably a great evil"--the evil element being money.


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