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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Risky business: Chance and contingency in American art, around 1900
by Greenhalgh, Adam Robert, Ph.D., University of Maryland, College Park, 2012, 297; 3517934
Abstract (Summary)

My dissertation exposes and interprets unnoticed points of intersection between American visual culture and the rhetoric, logic, and imagery of institutions and disciplines dedicated to rationalizing chance—insurance, census, statistics, probabilism—around 1900, when popular, mathematical, and philosophical conceptions of the accident were undergoing considerable revision. Following the Civil War, experts in a number of disciplines and commercial enterprises counted, measured, and classified individual experiences, bodies, and lives. Statistically minded theorists recognized that, given a large enough sample, phenomena previously considered random or divinely predetermined, such as death, injury, accident, disease, and crime, occurred regularly and were, to a degree, predictable. Anthropometrists also noticed that anatomical and physiognomic traits were distributed according to statistically evident norms. Innovative graphic techniques were developed to visualize, dramatize, and publicize the previously invisible trends, laws, and patterns revealed by such statistical analysis. Insurance underwriters gathered vital statistics and compiled actuarial charts, effectively quantifying lives and configuring individuals in terms of risk. Insurance advertisements portrayed the modern world as a place of hazard and imminent peril manageable only through accident and life coverage. My dissertation demonstrates that this statistical and actuarial calculus manifested in works of art as Americans began to think, speak, and visualize their world in terms of risk, odds, and contingency. Organized as a series of case studies, my work demonstrates that visual culture fully engaged with the abstract concepts—chance, risk—and mathematical disciplines—statistics, probabilism—that informed this emergent worldview.

My study builds on recent social histories of chance, enhancing and complicating them by considering understudied imagery—insurance advertising; composite photography; statistical graphics—and period documents overlooked by art historians—census questionnaires; actuarial life tables; Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward—to reveal not only how this material informs major artworks, but also how works of art participated in underwriting an emerging conception of the world as an ultimately indeterminate, chance-based system. Individual chapters focus on artworks clustered roughly around the year 1900: Winslow Homer's mid-1880s paintings of peril at sea, blurry pictorial photographic portraiture by Edward Steichen, and George Bellows's painting Forty-two Kids (1907).

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Promey, Sally M., Kelly, Franklin
Commitee: Auerbach, Jonathan, Shannon, Joshua, Truettner, William H.
School: University of Maryland, College Park
Department: Art History and Archaeology
School Location: United States -- Maryland
Source: DAI-A 73/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: American studies, Art history, Science history
Keywords: Bellamy, Edward, Bellows, Bellows, George, Chance, Edward, George, Homer, Homer, Winslow, Insurance, Risk, Steichen, Steichen, Edward, Winslow
Publication Number: 3517934
ISBN: 978-1-267-48635-6
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