Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture

By Sheardy, Robert, Jr. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2006 | Go to article overview

Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture


Sheardy, Robert, Jr., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The 2006 John G. Cawelti Award Winner Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture Martin A. Berger. Berkley: California University Press, 2004.

Is racism so embedded in Euro-American culture; so commonplace, so deeply rooted in our social and psychological consciousnesses that even the design of a building can be called "white?" What about nineteenth-century photographs of Yosemite Valley or paintings of arctic icebergs? Is it not a stretch to suggest that the absence of visual marks of whiteness is no guarantee that racist bias is not present? Martin A. Berger, associate professor of history and visual culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz, would respond emphatically, "No!" In his convincingly argued and well-penned book, Sight Unseen, he poses the above questions and posits answers for them. He reminds us in his introduction that visual marks alone; ". . . observable traits . . . do not persuade us to internalize racial values embedded within them, so much as they confirm meanings for which the discourses and structures of our society have predisposed us" (1).

The four central chapters are devoted to genre painting, landscape photography, museum architecture, and the silent cinema as sights of whiteness, even when unseen. By way of these essays, Berger contends that visual evidence of racism need not be present in objects of cultural expression to function in the service of confirming whiteness. In discussing the bucolic farm scenes of William Sidney Mount, for instance, he agrees with art historians from Albert Boime to Elizabeth Johns regarding the absence of a black man in banjo playing scenes. We recall that the banjo is specifically related to African American life. This motif of absence becomes more racially charged than scenes in which blacks are included though marginalized. Invisibility is more insidious than marginalization when it comes to representing emblems of racist ideology. …

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