Sight Unseen explores how racial identity guides the interpretation of the visual world. Through a nimble analysis of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century paintings, photographs, museums, and early motion pictures, Martin A. Berger illustrates how a shared investment in whiteness invisibly guides what Americans of European descent see, what they accept as true, and, ultimately, what legal, social, and economic policies they enact.
Carefully reconstructing the racial and philosophical contexts of selected artworks that contain no narrative links to race, the author exposes the effects of racial thinking on our interpretation of the visual world. Bucolic genre paintings of white farmers, pristine landscape photographs of the western frontier, monumental civic architecture, and early action films provide case studies for investigating how European-American sight became inextricably bound to the racial values of American society. Berger shows how artworks are more significant for confirming internalized beliefs on race, than they are for selling us on racial values we do not yet own. A significant contribution to the growing field of whiteness studies, this accessible, provocative, and compelling book exposes how something as apparently natural as sight is conditioned by the racial values of society.
List of Illustrations
Introduction: White Like Me
1. Genre Painting and the Foundations of Modern Race
2. Landscape Photography and the White Gaze
3. Museum Architecture and the Imperialism of Whiteness
4. Silent Cinema and the Gradations of Whiteness
Epilogue: The Triumph of Racialized Thought
Martin A. Berger is Associate Professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded Age Manhood (California, 2000).
"A compelling and challenging work."—Frances K. Pohl, author of Framing America
"Berger is unafraid to tackle the major issues, and this book shows it."—Bruce Robertson, author of Marsden Hartley and Reckoning with Winslow Homer
"Berger, writing on topics as diverse as landscape photography and early film, pushes into fascinating issues of gender, race, and class with sensitivity, insight, and largely jargon-free analysis. Having made a mark as a key Eakins scholar, he promises to achieve a similar feat in Sight Unseen, getting us to rethink traditional material in a new light."—John Wilmerding, Christopher Binyon Sarofim Professor of American Art, Princeton University
Cawelti Book Award, American Culture Association