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Complaint: Modern Life — 3/28/14

Posted by Jon Mogul, filed under Wolfsonian Collection



This is a painting on view in our permanent exhibition, Art and Design in the Modern Age. It’s alternately called Suicide with Skyscrapers or Man on the Ledge. The artist is Stuyvesant Van Veen, a New Yorker who was best known as a mural painter.

This painting is remarkable in how strongly it invites the viewer to engage at the level of narrative. What’s going to happen next seems pretty straightforward. Either he’s going to jump or he’s not.

But how this young man got there is more of a mystery. And the painter makes it even more of a mystery by electing to portray face from an oblique angle. By obscuring the expression on his face, Van Veen deprives us of the kinds of psychological indicators that might help us figure out how he got to this place, what brought him to the ledge. The clues are found not in the way Van Veen rendered the human figure, but in how he painted the surroundings—in other words, in social psychology rather than in individual psychology.

In particular, the painting embodies a trenchant complaint about life in modern times, one most associated with the French social theorist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim’s wrote a book in 1897 called Suicide. In that book, he introduced the concept of anomie, as a way of getting at one of the more disturbing aspects he identified in urban, industrial societies. In such a society, the values, the ideologies enunciated by the larger community can lose their connection to the experience of individual people. And as a result the norms that govern behavior lose their hold over individuals. Where that happens, social deviance—crime, drug abuse, suicide—can flourish.

So here is my narrative. Look again at the painting. Here is a young man in the heart of New York, one of the biggest, most crowded cities on earth. Perhaps he’s moved there from a small town, a place where everyone knew everyone else, and where everyone was in everyone else’s business. Maybe the promises that brought him to New York—success or glamor or love or sex—have been broken. And here he is—not another soul in sight. An individual without community, a portrait of anomie.

Jon Mogul is The Wolfsonian's assistant director for research and academic initiatives.

Caption: Painting, Suicide with Skyscrapers [Man on the Ledge], 1940. Stuyvesant Van Veen. New York, New York. Acrylic on canvas. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Note: This post is based on the presentation for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.