NOVEMBER 17, 2018
A DIVISION EXISTS in American culture between those who view the presidency of Donald Trump as simply the culmination of the country’s dark, hostile, and often pathetic character, and those who think the president is the cause. As if to answer the debate, it would appear that the ghost of Edward Hopper, one of the most important realist painters of the 20th century, took possession of Getty Images photographer John Moore to present an image both frightening and familiar.
At the United Nations, just moments before delegates from 193 of the world’s countries laughed at Trump’s bombast, the current president of the “greatest nation in the history of the world” sits alone in a high back chair. His characteristically poor posture, along with his sunken and defeated facial expression, gives him the appearance of a sulking child. A guard in full uniform stands adjacent, also staring straight ahead. The dark and dull tones of the photograph — the greens, beiges, and the placement of the figures gives it uncanny resemblance to a scene Hopper would have rendered. The way the shadows work to mute the lighting is a move approximate to Hopper’s brushstroke, and it drowns the image of the United States’s president in melancholia so thick that the photo becomes perfectly eerie — a fitting illustration of not the man at its center, but also the discordant and lost people he leads.
French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has argued that art is not representational, but presentational. It presents “world, sense, and existence.” Edward Hopper presented an American world far out of favor with the country’s tradition and convention of optimism, faith in its own superiority and progress, and its socially murderous emphasis on individual ambition.
Most admirers of Hopper associate him with the American city, most especially New York, but he spent his childhood in a small town, living in a conservative community with his Baptist family. The piety of his formative years alienated him from the liberal art world even as he earned acclaim and admiration from elite channels. He would become suspicious of his country on the make, painting under the tension of his own desire to create in the creative capital of the country and his contempt for the short, narrow, and American vision of life as an endless hustle.
Hopper began his career as a commercial illustrator, but he had little tolerance for any process that demanded he prostitute his talent for the profit of a nameless, and heartless, corporation. As he achieved independent success, he remained dissatisfied with the essence of American life, and as a result, he became the most effective artistic explorer of his country’s loneliness, isolation, and sadness.
It was rare for Hopper to write, which makes it all the more revelatory that, in a letter to the editor of Scribner’s, he offered praise for the publication of the death-driven Ernest Hemingway story “The Killers.” Hemingway’s tale of Nick Adams’s introduction to the criminal underworld and the realization that death lurks just around every corner, was in 1927, in the words of Hopper, a welcome departure from the “vast sea of sugar-coated mush that makes up most of our fiction.”
Hopper, like Hemingway, saw people having to live on their own — a condition that, according to the protagonist of the Hemingway novel To Have and Have Not, leaves them without a “bloody fucking chance.” His paintings mourn how, choking on the noxious fumes of the industrialized city and suffering under the deafening soundtrack of the cash register and other devices of commerce, the lonely American disappears into the background of buying and selling, and under the suffocation of big business and cold bureaucracy. In his 1927 painting Automat, a woman wearing a hat like a shroud sits alone, solemnly staring in her cup of coffee: her dejection takes center-stage. She is not unlike the usheress in Hopper’s New York Movie, a blonde woman bathed in light, eyes cast on the floor without expression. The darkened figures watch the film, indifferent to her presence. In Office at Night, from 1940, a secretary standing at an open drawer from a filing cabinet stares longingly at a man seated at a desk. He focuses with seemingly unbreakable concentration on the work at the surface. The two figures occupy the same small space, but appear to live one hundred miles apart.
Hopper’s most famous painting, Nighthawks, evokes such a foreboding feeling of American loneliness that it inspired everything from the aesthetics of film noir to a Tom Waits’s record documenting solitude in a booming metropolis. Three customers sit in an all-night diner, not altogether different from the setting of “The Killers,” while the bartender in a white paper hat looks ahead out the window. Everyone appears unhappy, and no one seems prepared or willing to interact with anyone else. The streets outside are empty.
As Gordon Theisen writes in his brilliant 2006 book, Staying Up Too Late: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche:
[W]hat keeps Nighthawks fresh and striking despite its familiarity is that it evokes a generally unacknowledged side of a nation that touts its optimism, and offers up hope and progress as its very reason for being […] In a single, cogent, concentrated image, Nighthawks manages to reflect our attitudes toward individuality, cities, technology, nature, freedom, sexuality, women, money, experience, success, and religion. But it does so darkly, through its dejected sensibility, its desolation.
One look out the window and something inside ourselves makes it clear that we are now citizens of the night. We all sit inside that diner, waiting for a killer to emerge out the alley and break through the door.
John Moore’s photograph of Donald Trump at the UN functions as a contemporary Hopper, depicting the United States’s loneliness, isolation, and suicidal individualism. Trump is not only the perfect Hopper subject — a New York con man with his name on gigantic structures casting shadows over the pedestrians at their feet — but sitting alone, seconds away from hearing evidence of exactly how the world rejects him, he is both in the literal sense, but also in a deeper spiritual sense, a stand-in for the modern American.
A coalescence of multiple studies demonstrates the depth of American loneliness. Cigna, the health insurer, surveyed 20,000 Americans, and found that over half consider themselves lonely, with two-fifths admitting that they are “isolated from others.” The problem of American isolation is becoming so severe that books on the subject are almost becoming their own genre.
Trump is not a contradiction of the American ideal so much as he is a culmination of our culture that extols the pursuit of profit and shows no mercy for the “losers” — whether they are disabled people without health care, children without drinking water in Flint, Michigan, ethnic minorities, immigrants, or refugees. Hopper’s America is one where people are always alone and under threat — artistic realism for the reality of a country without networks of sympathy and social services.
During his attempt to transform the UN General Assembly into one of his demagogic rallies, Donald Trump became like the personification of the United States’s spiritual crisis. Beyond his tragic failure of leadership, there exists the larger tragedy: Trump is not a leader as much as he is a follower. He is following the sad, lonely, and spiritually destructive direction American culture mapped many decades ago.
David Masciotra (www.davidmasciotra.com) is the author of four books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing, 2017).