notes to chapter two 163
the artist in the 1950s, and my review of his book for a comparison of the tradi-
tions he describes there and the discourse surrounding Eakins as a legendary
ﬁgure: “Secrets and Lies: Gossip and Art’s Queer Histories,” American Quarterly
59.2 (2007), 511 – 21.
39 Perhaps in those cases we see what Steiner called a “strategic diﬃculty” (which
was contemporary with the work’s creation) evolve into a “modal diﬃculty”
(where the work’s importance grows from the scandal it generated in its imme-
diate context, but which is no longer palpable).
40 Art historical narratives covering the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are
structured by the singular break of modernism — by the movement toward what
Clement Greenberg famously described as the “all over canvas” of painters like
Mondrian and Pollock and by the refusal of narrative painting as an inherently
bourgeois form. The Gross Clinic is clearly not part of modernism’s party; no
work of Eakins makes the challenges to representational logic that we associate
with many of his contemporaries. His is a backward practice by many standards —
41 For more on this point regarding Duchamp, see Jones, Postmodernism and the
En- Gendering of Marcel Duchamp.
42 This is why Michael Fried argued in his work on the painting that it generates
in us a sense of there being something “behind” or “before” the painting, which
the artist recorded. Fried’s intervention in critical writing about the painting
was to assert that our desire to assess the painting’s ﬁdelity to an actual event
seen and recorded by the artist was a formal eﬀect of its realism. Realism gives
us the impression of a recording of an original scene not because Eakins saw this
surgery and decided to paint it, but by virtue of the way it is painted: certain
elements (like the superabundance of detail) heighten the sense that there is
something real there, which we gain access to by looking at the painting closely,
reading it for signs of its accuracy. Attempts to identify the patient, to ﬁgure out
who stands in for whom, and to assess the painting’s accuracy as a depiction of
the surgical theater of the 1860s might add something to our knowledge of Dr.
Gross’s circle, but it does not resolve the problems The Gross Clinic creates for
the viewers. It doesn’t make looking at the painting any easier. In fact it makes
the act of looking part of the problem. And, more problematically, it masks what
is actually there on the canvas. Fried draws our attention to the artist’s obsession
with techniques of representation. In the painting, we see a man record the sur-
gery with his pen, students take notes, and the surgeon wield a scalpel as though
it were a brush. The artist has signed the painting on the bottom of the surgical
table so that it looks as though it were carved into the table’s wood. Instruments
of representation are aligned with the scalpel, and their use is aligned with a
bloody violation of the boundary between the inside and the outside of the body.
43 Costello and Willsdon, introduction, 13.
45 Butler, Precarious Life, 20.
46 A number of people read this image, which he has produced in diﬀerent ways