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Unsinkable Masculinity: The Artist and the Work of Art in James Cameron's Titanic

From: Cultural Critique
50, Winter 2002
pp. 1-22 | 10.1353/cul.2002.0007

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Cultural Critique 50 (2002) 1-22

Not many years before the Titanic sank in 1912, Thorstein Veblen wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class that the "modern feminine [code] . . . leaves no alternative direction in which the impulse to purposeful action may find expression" (358). This particularly Americanist economy of functionalism and efficiency, threatened by the excesses of the "feminization of American culture" (to borrow Ann Douglas's phrase), shared a similar relationship with the economy of the American arts. Walt Whitman, for example, urgently called attention to what he perceived as the European, decadent (i.e., feminized) art forms infiltrating and endangering America's emerging national aesthetic. For Whitman, the idea of the feminine should strike a commonsense (i.e., masculinist) balance between male and female. Woman's presentation of self, in Whitman's mind, is to suggest both "a strong and sweet Female Race" (328) that must be "raised to become the robust equals" of man (343). To secure America's claim to a financially sound and aesthetically viable culture, a masculinist rhetoric intervenes where cultural feminization purportedly occurs. Titanic the ship and Titanic the film (James Cameron, 1997) reinscribe this tradition in contemporary cultural mythology as moral reminders of the necessity to contain the economies of this feminine excess. In addition, Cameron's Titanic rehearses this cultural ideology through the filter of the American artist and his work of art. At stake here, as we might suspect, is the body of the woman.

To identify the aesthetic of the work of art that serves to contain the cultural excess of the "feminine" and reappears in Titanic, I turn to what Michael Davitt Bell has described as the "problem" in the American literary tradition: Realism. Undoubtedly burdened by contradiction and unending variation, the term (particularly under the aegis of American Realism) is often associated with a complexity of cultural ideals. In fact, as art historian Barbara Novak has suggested, the problem with American Realism rests in the "dilemma" artists confront precisely between notions of the real and the ideal (61). Moreover, this tension between the real and the ideal is expressed through an American amalgam of luminist sensibilities, scientific imagination, mechanical invention, precision in measurement, classical perspective, vulgar materialism (I do not intend this to be pejorative), and spiritual transcendentalism. In effect, American Realists sought an aesthetic that made manifest a concept of the Ideal thing (Novak, 109-24).

Realism's winding and uneven relationship to Idealism is indeed traceable through Whitman's elegiac yet "virile" poetry, Thomas Eakins's scientific-painterly aesthetic that embraced the photograph and Darwinism, Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural machine as "Forerunner of Democracy," and Robert Henri's non-"sissified" painterly temperament. What is important to underscore here is the masculinist ideology that defines those problematic terms of the aesthetic we call American Realism: commonsense, democratic, virile, balanced, scientific, ordinary, natural. In other words: an ideal sameness. More to the point: ideal sameness as masculine where, in the American arts, the perceived "feminine" hand of the artist is put under erasure. As Bell argues, the formulation of the non-artist- position at the end of the nineteenth century (and certainly a Realist ideal held to this day) was essential for the male artist's sense of gendered self. "It is surely no coincidence," writes Bell of William Dean Howell's cultural enthusiasm for Realism, that

Howell came to associate realism with "masculine" normalcy, and to distinguish it from concern for "art," at a time when modern stereotypes of male sexual identity—rigidly differentiating "effeminate" homosexuality from "virile" heterosexuality—were being solidified into what sociologists call master status traits (37).

This is not to say that the artist disappears (recall that a Derridean erasure insists upon the trace). Rather, through the cultural rhetoric of Realism the artist and his work of art are made to appear natural. To say that the American artist puts the artist under erasure is to say that the American male artist (in order not to be associated with homosexuality or the cultural logic of "effeminacy") renegotiates the terms for both masculinity and creativity. An American aesthetic of realism and masculinity emerges only through a series of fits and starts...



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