Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 24, 2020
Asma Naeem Out of Earshot: Sound, Technology, and Power in American Art, 1860–1900 Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. 248 pp.; 49 color ills.; 27 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780520298989)

Asma Naeem’s book starts with one of those “aha” moments that occur when, as an art historian, you recognize that you have been overlooking a simple but persistent phenomenon relevant to your subject. Vision, it turns out, is not the only sense relevant to the field—hearing matters too. Naeem’s first sentence will not surprise most art historians: “Museums weren’t always the hallowed spaces of reflection that they are today” (1). However, she builds on this straightforward observation to provide a wide range of novel insights. Ultimately, Out of Earshot is framed by a simple but potent question: what if we consider sound when looking at painting?

The development of museums into silent temples of art was part of broader changes to the soundscape in late nineteenth-century America. The clacking of new mechanical inventions, the recording and reproduction of voice and music, and the suppression of “inappropriate” sounds in certain settings are just some examples Naeem cites. Across three case studies, dedicated to Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing, respectively, she argues that changes in nineteenth-century sound occurred along class, gender, and racial lines. These three artists depicted and responded to these changes. (This focus on sound in the context of American painting in the 1800s complements Michael Gaudio’s recent book—Sound, Image, Silence: Art and the Aural Imagination in the Atlantic World from University of Minnesota Press, 2019—about aural imagination in representations of the colonial Americas.)

To broach this broad topic, Naeem narrows her focus to the artists’ depictions of specifically sonic subject matter, such as musicians performing or one figure calling to another, either within or beyond the canvas. Extended formal analyses ground the book, as she weaves in with impressive erudition rich context from the history of science, popular culture, and the artists’ biographies. This blended analytical form—as well as the length of the book and its framing with a simple but important historic phenomenon—is reminiscent of Jennifer Roberts’s Transporting Visions (University of California Press, 2014). Occasionally, Naeem stretches some of the formal analyses and erudite references too far. Examples include an argument that the ruffles on a dress in an Eakins painting stand in simultaneously for piano keys, the artist’s hands, and inscribed sound (115–16) and a passing mention of Jacques Derrida’s metaphysics of presence (153). However, these are small criticisms of what is ultimately a compelling and well-written book.

Of the three case studies, the one dedicated to Homer covers the broadest swath of the artist’s career. The opening chapter reevaluates his engagement with depictions of sound and communication, from his early commercial illustrations, to oil paintings created during the Civil War, to works produced on the eve of the twentieth century, when he had isolated himself on the Maine coast. Naeem poetically summarizes the thematic link between these works at the outset of the chapter: “[That] the artist made painting after painting of humans attempting to communicate over vast distances just as inventors and engineers were working on the very same issues suggests . . . [that Homer’s art was] part of the same cultural dialogue and polemics—centering on class-based hopes and fears—about sound, distance, and technology” (22). Throughout the chapter, this frame of communication across distances allows Naeem to bring a fresh eye to many of Homer’s best-known works. She examines how sound and its transmission of messages had differing effects on different groups of people that appear in the work. The artist depicts sonic moments featuring African Americans, soldiers, fishermen, and members of a rural agrarian class increasingly transformed into the working class of an industrial economy. Naeem’s discussion of this last group and of Homer’s engagements with how sound supported the development of mechanized time is one of the strongest sections of the book.

From Homer’s search for aural connection, Naeem moves to Eakins’s attempts to create freeze-frames of sound perception and sound making. Where the chapter on Homer was structured around technological innovations that allowed sound to travel great distances, like the telegraph and the telephone, the chapter on Eakins is framed by the development of technologies that could record and fix sound for posterity, such as the phonograph. As Naeem points out, phonographic recording was considered to be the sonic analogue of photography, which Eakins used extensively. This chapter has narrower focus than the previous one, concentrating particularly on two paintings: Singing a Pathetic Song (1881, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) and The Concert Singer (1890–92, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Naeem’s initial assessment of Singing a Pathetic Song ultimately summarizes many of the chapter’s themes:

[The painting] is theoretically productive because of . . . Eakins’s lifelong commitment to the broader project of transcription and mimesis. [His] impulse toward the documentation of the psychic and physical dimensions of each sitter was so insistent that . . . the artist would [sometimes] have the person repeatedly sing and play their instrument throughout their session. . . . Eakins’s project of picturing people in the middle of their musical performances was an agenda of labor and artistic innovation in and of itself, both by the performing subject and by the artist meticulously recording the visual—and, to some degree, aural—coordinates of the human body as a sonic subject. (80)

This “agenda of labor” was tied to the low social status of mimetic machines and occupations, such as professional transcriptionists like Eakins’s father, and the elevation of original art that was representational but also understood to be an evocative interpretation of its subject. This tension comes out in Naeem’s analysis of The Concert Singer. The position of the singer’s mouth and throat are so accurate that apparently scholars can identify the exact syllable she is singing. Yet, this was not enough for Eakins to create an aural artwork. He also inscribed the bars of music on the frame of the painting, prompting viewers who could read music to imagine the song while looking at a precise image of the singer performing. Therefore, the painting traverses the “low” art of mechanical mimesis and the “high” arts of oil painting and operatic singing at a moment when those creative hierarchies were being established. While Eakins’s blending of low and high is well known in his use of photography, Naeem introduces another, sonic axis along which the artist traverses classist cultural divisions.

The final case study, dedicated to Dewing, a central figure of the Aesthetic movement and the least studied of the three artists, is the most tightly focused. It is built around a powerful formal analysis of A Reading (1897, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC) and explores the ways in which women “anchored . . . both the Aesthetic program and period depictions of listening and contemplation” (133). Weaving together information about the artist’s own boisterous behavior and broader nineteenth-century social expectations that women should listen to men, Naeem traces how gendered silence developed during the Gilded Age. This silence encompassed women ranging from typists, who had to listen to and transcribe their male bosses’ dictated notes, to upper-class women at the artists’ colony at Cornish, New Hampshire—where Dewing spent many summers—who were expected to listen to men holding court. The two enervated female protagonists of A Reading seem to propagate expectations that women should be silent, although Naeem points out that this atmosphere of silence is complicated by the painting’s title. “With the aid of the title . . . the viewer can construct sonic narratives for the women in A Reading. No longer isolated, silent, or static, perhaps the reader is reading silently to herself, or has just paused in her reading” (152). Despite the fact that the title describes an activity, Dewing’s picture dates from a moment when women’s voices were suppressed—a suppression that still occurs today.

Throughout the book, Naeem attempts to draw lines between Gilded Age artworks and the art and social issues of the present or more recent past. This usually takes the form of a chapter conclusion that discusses how twentieth-century American artists have engaged with sonic issues that their nineteenth-century predecessors also addressed. Some of these connections are more effective than others—and skipping ahead many decades in the final few paragraphs of a chapter can feel like a rushed coda. However, there is a powerful connection between past, present, and sound that Naeem highlights in her introduction:

In our own age, when the relevance of museums is being questioned . . . [t]he pendulum, it seems, is swinging back: museums no longer wish to be perceived as inert, airless, sacrosanct spaces for the privileged and are embracing more democratic and decidedly sonic, I daresay noisy, functions: programming lively performance art; welcoming the intermingling of people from all backgrounds; responding to vocal demands for social equity; and adopting a porousness between art, technology, and education. Thus, to consider fine arts through the intersection of sound, power, and technology seems of particular significance as the historical trajectory of the museum comes full circle. (5–6)

Ultimately, Out of Earshot is not only an accomplished but also a timely scholarly contribution.

Diana Seave Greenwald
Assistant Curator of the Collection, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum