UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Edward Hopper in critical condition Bledsoe, James Barry


This thesis is about the relationship between an artist and his critics. It explores how critics develop ways of interpreting a painter's work which become established as the meaning of his paintings. Edward Hopper's paintings are basically ambiguous. They can be deciphered in a number of ways depending upon what set of interpretive procedures are used to unlock them. Therefore any consistency in the written description of his work can be looked upon as a perceived accomplishment of the critics. We have been taught how to interpret Hopper through the professional written analysis of the art critic or art historian. In their reviews critics make available a set of assembly instructions for unlocking the meaning of his paintings. Through these we learn how to decode them. For the past forty years Hopper's work has been characterized as lonely, timeless and alienated. This thesis argues that this interpretation is largely the work of Hopper's critics. It cannot be derived from his paintings as such. An important method for establishing such perceptual concensus is a classificatory procedure available to critics, known as the genre concept. This concept helps to impose an order on the formal properties of a work of art. The genre to which Hopper's paintings were originally assigned is the narrative painting tradition. Story-telling is the primary goal of the narrative painting tradition. It is a form of painting where the material is representational with the intention of seeing the painting as part of a sequence of events. In applying the concept to Hopper's work, the strict story-telling definition is modified. Hopper's paintings do not fit completely the representational requirements of narrative painting. Attention becomes focussed on the situational episode rather than an on-going story. The specific qualities of timelessness, alienation, and loneliness emerge, it is argued, as a product of the application of the narrative genre to paintings which do not fully conform. Thus the special qualities with which Hopper's work is identified are seen as a product of the critic's own interpretive work in interaction with the paintings themselves. The thesis further explores how this effect is accomplished by describing the build-up of a critical tradition among critics of Hopper's work in the 1930s and '40s. The specific practices used by critics in establishing an interpretive concensus are described. The primary methods used are: (1) Special insider's knowledge about the artist himself; (2) the use of one another's critical reviews as a resource file; and (3) the critic's privileged use of the artist's own statements. Once the gradual establishment of the interpretation becomes recognized as the legitimate interpretation of his work, this also creates a selection of the painter's work as a central corpus. This consists of those paintings which typically confirm the critical consensus and which recur again and again in the critical discussion of his work. Paintings which do not fit the established interpretive procedures are relegated to the sidelines. These interpretive procedures are passed on by the critics to the reader who learns from them how to recognize the important works of a painter and how to look at and interpret them. This is part of the process of cultural mediation. Through this passing on of interpretive procedures critical traditions are constructed and maintained.

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