French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy makes the interesting and useful distinction that painting is not a representation of the empirical world, but a presentation of the world—of sense and of existence. This idea remained on my mind while I walked through the Edward Hopper retrospective exhibit that just ended its national tour, making stops in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
Hopper was reticent to speak about his own work, and went so far as to self-deprecatingly imply that all he ever desired to do was paint the rays of a sunset bouncing off the roof of a New England house. Like the narratives in his paintings, his “artist statement” is ambiguous, mysterious, and vulnerable to diversely varying interpretations. In an importantly symbolic sense, Hopper’s refusal to speak freely about his work provides a more clear and potent insight than any words could muster.
His silence is complementary to and indicative of the unnerving silence of his characters. The most commonly used word by Hopper’s admirers and critics is “isolation”, and any viewer of Hopper’s art can understand why. A sense of dread, despair, and dejected sensibility can be seen on the young woman’s downward looking face in Automat (1927). Feelings of detachment and loneliness, and the uneasy boredom that accompanies them, are projected on to the onlooker of the usheress staring at the spot where the floor and wall meet in New York Movie (1939).
Automat (1927) (partial)
Isolation is more than merely being alone. It is existential emptiness, deep despair, and a longing for tangible connections with other people who are in sight, but feel miles away. This is why the greatest and most discomforting presentation of isolation can be found in Hopper’s paintings that include more than one person.
Cape Cod Evening (1939) presents two people who appear to be lovers, or at least live in the same house, sitting in their backyard with their dog. There is no eye contact between any of the characters—both the man and woman look out on to the grass, and the dog stares into the landscape. The young man places his hand onto a few spikes of grass to feel the wind blow them against his palm, reaching out for something on his skin even if it is as disloyal and restless as the wind, while another human being stands right next to him. In Office at Night (1940), a woman appears to be longing for her co-worker’s attention and affection, while leering over his shoulder pretending to file through a cabinet. He is focused on his desk, oblivious to her company.
Desolation, isolation, and separation are evoked and emoted most famously in Nighthawks (1942), the classic and perhaps definitive work of American realism. Four people, presumably strangers, sit in an all-night diner. One employee, in a white uniform and paper hat, reaches for something underneath the counter while affixing his eyes straight ahead out the window. The three customers—two men and one woman—appear utterly depressed as they seem to make a strong effort not to look at each other.
Nighthawks has become part of the American iconography and a central part of Americana—reproduced on television, movie screens, book covers, and album artwork; referenced in film noir, The Simpsons, and Tom Waits records. It seems to simultaneously capture and destroy the American myth of self-made strength through “rugged individualism” by presenting its underbelly—its social consequences that manifest in personal and national insomnia. This is the night side of America.
The superpower is tossing and turning, listening to the dull hum of the ceiling fan, glancing at the blood red digital clock, desperately wishing to fall back asleep to visit American dream land. The “nighthawks”, with their grim outlooks, chipped shoulders, and discouraged demeanors are those that have come to realize that the “American dream” is just that: a dream. It is not tangibly attainable. It is fleeting. It is a fantasy.
The nighthawks mourn, along with the Cape Cod family and the New York usheress, as Hopper mourns, for something that never really existed. They grieve for a myth that they once believed in, and in the absence of such a belief they find their loneliness. Unable to find comfort in others, they become isolated. Hopper’s presentations of the world, of existence and of sense, are essential because in them viewers can see Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, Herman Melville, Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and many more artists of varying genres and eras that too have mourned for a dream.
Cape Cod Evening (1939) (partial)
When Gore Vidal writes of his grandfather, Oklahoma Senator Thomas Pryor Gore (1870-1949), in his memoirs, he describes a man he loved, but also politics as he understood it in childhood, walking the halls of the Senate holding his blind grandfather’s hand or reading him policy papers and speeches as he fell asleep. Vidal’s work, which has shown the selfishness of American politics, the darkness of Empire, and the costs of imperial hubris better than any other historian novelist, maps the distance between the dream he dreamt during childhood and the reality he grew to understand during adulthood.
When Bruce Springsteen sings of a girl staring into the night with “the eyes of one who hates for just being born” in “Racing in the Street” (1978) or a small-town drifter watching idealized America, but longing for a connection as “girls in their summer clothes” pass him by (“Girls in Their Summer Clothes”, 2007), is he not presenting the same burnt out, passed over, and betrayed individuals that are visible in Hopper’s painting?
Hopper, Vidal, Springsteen, and many other great American artists reveal the dark side of America situated along the fault lines of nostalgic dreams turned nightmares in the middle of nowhere, yet surrounded by people, activity, and noise. They also demonstrate that through art the artist makes a commitment to a vocation of truth telling, and there is no vocation without invocation, whether consciously done or not. Through invocation of great forebearers of artistic creativity and prophetic critique of the status quo, the viewer is connected to the legions of brave men and women who summoned all their talent, intelligence, and spiritual genius to not only strip society of all its self-protective veils, but also offer hope to those who are victimized behind the veils.
Springsteen may sing about people with a perpetual case of the blues, but his choruses are often secular gospel: “Come on up for the rising”; “I believe in the promised land.” Vidal may assault the use and evolution of American power, but at one point he wrote hopefully about the activist movements of the 1960s, and also details alternative ways of thinking, which have the potential to be uplifting and liberating, in such fine novels as Creation and The Judgment of Paris. Hopper’s grim portrait of the American sociological and psychological unraveling may be entirely missing a hopeful answer, but it does provide an honest mirror for Americans in denial about their own isolation and resistance to real community. One can humbly hope that this mirror will motivate a makeover.
In a country where public institutions are neglected and/or failing, social programs are consistently cut, and civic traditions are weakened with each passing year, concerned citizens must confront, with hopes to conquer, that almost inevitable isolation and emptiness that creeps into the collective American lifestyle. What is essential for individuals, but more importantly communities, is not cheap and naïve optimism that tends to accompany thoughtless consumerism and marketplace madness. The extreme opposite approach—all encompassing pessimism—will also fail to lead people above the fray of American dreams never realized.
A wise and weathered hope, gathered from our artists, and imbued with understanding of the odds and familiarity with the darkness, which refuses to give up or give in is the only possible catalyst for organized people to create a society guided by love, solidarity, and community.
Otherwise, we’re all just nighthawks.