Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 13, 2020
Michael Gaudio Sound, Image, Silence: Art and the Aural Imagination in the Atlantic World Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 224 pp.; 16 color ills.; 67 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (9781517907396)

Struck by lightning at his Philadelphia house in 1745, Benjamin Franklin’s friend Gilbert Tennent penned a sermon on God’s “Majestick Voice in the Thunder,” a warning to those disputing divine power over the wicked and the good. “Who can stand before this Holy Lord God,” Tennent wrote, “when once his Anger begins to burn?” Franklin himself was experimenting with electricity nearby, wielding rods and bells, harnessing invisibilities in less prophetic but equally noisy ways. The alternate poles of “enchantment or enlightenment” (ix), as Michael Gaudio’s brilliant new book argues, tacking between sensory deception and revelation, colored both men’s understanding of lightning. But the aural presence of electricity—registered by thunderous bolts that could either kill or empower—bespoke an American episteme that has been muddled in the literature: “At stake,” Gaudio argues, “was the question of whether the lightning was the voice of God speaking through the thunder or a natural force” (xvii). Sound and vision, that is, registered not only as knowledges but also as ontological phantoms.

Magical thinking about unseen destroyers is all too familiar in America today, convulsing the very political apparatus Benjamin helped design. This alone makes Gaudio’s book timely. Tracking a series of episodes in Atlantic art from circa 1592 to Thomas Edison, Gaudio’s unexpected case studies show us how certain aural/visual experiences of early America are best read less as synesthetic than as melancholic. “Soundings” (xi) were the ways the early continent struggled (and often failed) to measure as well as to listen, often at its peril. Where does sound figure here? Traditionally understood as transcription, visual art’s role regarding the audible—defaulting to the ut pictura poesis frame—enslaves art to lyric, harmony. In concrete terms, sound’s ephemerality, historically, as well as its invisibility, has understandably denied it serious consideration in art history until late. Yet recent work by, say, Niall Atkinson on the early European scene and Asma Naeem, for example, on the modern American one has changed this. These and others have shown how a traditional humanist synonymy of music (as opposed to sound more broadly) and art is deficient and, frankly, ahistorical. Wherein do we deal with, say, noise: “discordance made by voices; shouting, outcry,” or “strife, contention quarrel” (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v.)? Gaudio’s book adds a vital voice to the current wave of work on the topic, but with a difference. Sound’s foils, for Gaudio, are quietness, hushes, pauses, auditory ruptures—not so much absences as recalcitrant presences—“disturbance[s] of the privileged domain of vision though an appeal to the ear” (xii).

Casting from the North Pole, to Brazil, to the Catskills, to South Dakota, Gaudio braids three discourses around Atlantic capital: technology, landscape, and race. The last urgently plays across every section. The Genevan missionary Jean de Léry’s illustrated description of a Tupi dance from the sixteenth century, for example, does not just transcribe Indigenous words and sounds. Rather, in Gaudio’s reading, Lery’s narrative introduces Protestant skepticism into New World reporting, a skepticism grounded in distrust of the senses, including hearing. The “violence of the colonial matrix” (32) posits rituals—and humans—as deliberately unknowable via sight, smell, and sound. Meanwhile, Frans Post’s airless canvases of Brazil from the early 1640s read not just as paeans to exotic flora and fauna. They were, as Gaudio presents it, deliberately unspeaking pictorial environments; colored eschewings of local histories of warfare; and, moreover, unravelings of a landscape tradition extending from Leon Battista Alberti’s istoria. “What Post’s paintings ‘say’ is that landscape will always be awaiting the entrance of history’s voice onto the stage” (62). The story we get is rightly suspicious of the logocentricism that art historians have mapped onto (and with which they have unwittingly excused) the voices merely “of” colonial exploitation and violence. Sound is here a metaphor for art disengaged from the authority of language. It is a story of racial silencings and effacements—again, grimly familiar today. Gaudio’s concluding chapter—among the book’s best—on ethnographer James Mooney’s interest in the vanishing Lakota “Ghost Dance” in the 1890s is a poignant case study.

Make no mistake: this is history vested in visual forms and discourses, good art history. The chapters on specific works by Thomas Cole and Mason Chamberlain cast us into the murky world of early American spiritualism, a topic that often vanishes from Atlantic art histories invested in protoscience. Benjamin Franklin, far from a disenchanter of electricity, is identified in Chamberlain’s 1762 portrait as a “cunning priest” (92), akin to the painter. Again, it is an unspoken “voice” that Gaudio asks us to wait upon in reading the painting, a large canvas showing Franklin in his study as a storm rages outside. The specific relevance of the sonic seems to slip a bit here, but only momentarily; what Gaudio seems really to be considering is how electricity—a quasi visibility—puts pressure on mimesis:

Chamberlain’s picture stages an ambivalence that runs not only through the history of Enlightenment electrical experimentation, but through the history of picture-making as well. In commentaries on the visual arts going back to antiquity, the question of what a picture can adequately represent and what might be beyond the capacities of human art was often framed as an electrical question. (83)

Thunder and lightning were always totems of the unpicturable, the sublime: Pliny, Immanuel Kant, and Aby Warburg all agreed on this, even if Walter De Maria did not. But Gaudio is less confident in the electrician’s (and the artist’s) gesture of control; Franklin, despite his reach, had no problem with unexplained mysteries, even within the workings of scientific experiments (which often doubled as entertainments). The register on which such “magic” transmitted to audiences was, in fact, absence—of sound, among “the things that cannot be represented in pictures,” as Pliny put it. What is specific about the American case is the country’s very founding as an “Enlightenment” project, with sacral mysticism allegedly banished from pictures like Chamberlain’s that engage portraiture as reportage. But scientific history, let alone “realism,” does not subtend such pictures easily. Gaudio measuredly warns us against (American) originalists’ overreach. Context-as-content remains a vital approach to Atlantic visual culture, but one that, he implies, often threatens to dispense with “art.”

In fact, a push against unthoughtful historicity permeates the book. For this alone, nonspecialists should take note. A chapter on Thomas Cole’s Kaaterskill Falls (1826) offers a summa of Gaudio’s project, opening with Alois Riegl on pictorial mood (Stimmung). We approach the painting, which pivots on an image of a deafening cascade of water, not as one “unburdened by history” (102). Rather, pace Riegl, it is an object conscious of the disruptions that immediate circumstances will inflict on its pastness. Sound, here, keeps us embodied in ways that vision never will: “Something prevents the full sublimation of the viewer’s body into ocular experience. For all of the optical pull of the [pictured] distant Catskill landscape, we cannot close our ears to the sound of Cole’s waterfall” (107). Again, Gaudio is not just interested in affect. Cole’s engagement with camp meetings—cacophonous gatherings of Methodists, Baptists, and others in the woods—justifies a read of Falls centered on environmental clamor. This is a lovely parallel, but Gaudio leaves it appropriately unsettled: “In [Cole’s] painting we find historical context and we lose it” (124, emphasis in original).

For Gaudio’s book is equally concerned with sound’s real-world habitat: space. Perspectivalism, stable distance on the past, is what every one of his case studies wrestles with. Easy legibility of information is consistently drowned out by capitalism’s din. Here Atlantic space—defined by such exploitative noise—resists neat assignation to construct or topography; it is a realm crisscrossed by commodities and people willing and unwilling, one where, we learn, technologies like print and photography both invited and refused mimetic identification with alterity.

Long ago media theorist Walter Ong argued that American culture was particularly allergic to phonocentrism. The spoken/read binary no longer holds up very well, but Ong may have diagnosed something about the art history of the Americas up to now. One of the many merits of Gaudio’s bracing book is how it avoids positing sound as synonymous with speech, as a mere metaphor for how certain pictures “mean.” It mostly avoids, that is, the neutralizing (spatial) effect of reference. Thus Sound, Image, Silence, in a refreshing way, moves us away from the enduring Derridian preference for différence as something written rather than heard. For early Atlantic sound, like early Atlantic space, was too an active interval, at once terrifying and uncertain. It compels precisely because it is not, to use Gaudio’s words, an entirely rational enterprise.

Christopher P. Heuer
The University of Rochester