Nighthawks

November 15th, 2010

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is a painting evocative of desperation. The immediate focus of the diner/cafe contains the only human life visible within the painting, and within that there is a periphery/marginalization/distance between the individuals in the scene. The human figures of the scene are all within a small space, but are all separated from each other: there is a man with his back to the frame, some form of couple, and one waiter/attendant. All of these 3 factions share close vicinity, yet do not appear to be sharing communication nor do they appear to be sharing focus as all the characters are looking in different directions.

The man with his back to the viewer gives off sentiments of depression and demoralization, as he appears to be slouched and the lack of ability to accurately assess his appearance/demeanor further symbolizes how out of step with vitality and virility he is. This attitude, with consideration to the late hour, gives off the impression that this man is not here by choice, but rather by circumstance. When comparing his deflated demeanor is contrasted with the rows of unlit apartment windows, the diner/cafe seems more like a float rather than a lifesaver; that it is a symbol of the man’s stagnant existence rather than something that restores or progresses the man in any spiritual, mental, social, etc. way.

Another comparison that fleshes out the work’s desperation is the worker’s function. He works at this late-night establishment while the majority of society is sleeping, and with such minimal opportunities or, within this picture, receptive conduits for interaction, he is left with very little to do but contemplate his place in life; the steps he’s taken in life that have brought him to such a lonesome occupation of drudgery, which is only enhanced by he is structurally locked in by both this vibrantly illuminated diner/cafe, as well as the counter in which he has to stay encircled by to make a living.

The couple in the middle of the diner/cafe, while together as implied by their clasped hands, their body language otherwise implies very little connection, in particular their lack of eye contact or even body alignment. That mixed-body language can also be revelatory of the nature of their being out so late at night, as this rendezvous is less a date and more likely a respite from some dramatic, or possibly traumatic event, and the only late night place of habitation is this facility.

There is a general divide between the illumination within the diner/cafe, the sidewalks and street that are illuminated by streetlights, and the unlit apartment buildings. There is certain life, of aforementioned various implied conflicts within the establishment; the implied resting life within the apartment, implicitly recharging their energies for a day of some sort of labor that supports a lifestyle that seemingly keeps them in that part of the socioeconomic binary implied in this painting. The unlit businesses across the street from the diner both serve to symbolize the places which those night-sleepers spend their daytime hours and waking energies on, and the sort of life to which the people in the diner, especially the attendant, are estranged from.

Response Questions: On the ground experience with the modern urban electrified world inform and influence the creation of desperation when realizing how both the high-cost of living in cities of that world, and the high-activity of those areas create such a conflicted mood. With the high-cost of rent space for businesses, some places such as the diner/cafe featured in the painting resort to late hours, sometimes never closing, as a means to offer services to both other workers that have to resort to nocturnal occupations (as potentially represented by backward-facing patron) as well as creating a reputation for itself through that same specialized service for any other potential passerby consumers (as potentially represented by the couple). Specific experiences that can contribute to this are those people who, upon lacking opportunities or successes in occupations of more conventional times, are forced to seek work during the hours in which the majority of society sleeps. Many warehouse workers, taxicab drivers, diner/cafe attendants, inventory work, shipping, etc. become privy to the malleability of their livelihood factors, in particular the social aspect, as they forgo conventional sleep patterns for the sake of making enough money to live. Consequently, in forgoing conventional sleep patterns these workers forgo conventional patterns of consciousness and conscience as they experience the world in a way greatly different from much of society. In a way, these overnight workers form an example of a conflict between technological and primitive humanity: the multiplicity as well as importance of labor to make a living in capitalist societies, as well as the way that same importance of labor to make a living to some extent eschews the implications of the clock.  The way making money supersedes most concerns/foci in the modern capitalist world, job opportunities are created for all hours, with late night/overnight jobs often focusing on essentially setting the table for the morning/day labor . Awareness of the drudgery and transitional aspect of this work brings upon the realization as to how their lifestyle disregards the framework and segmenting of human discourse that resulted from the creation of the clock, as their lives are no longer governed by the segments of the day in which it is more convenient/energizing to be awake and active for, and more for whenever they can punch in and punch out as a means to end for economic sustenance. It is important to also consider that to counteract how the technology of light is employed here to replace the natural solar light-source that is lacking at night. Furthermore, people who were not a part of this workforce, yet were exposed to observing/interacting with this world through various circumstances take note of the desperation of this world. Often times, said exposure results from undesirable causes like family/health emergencies, anxiety, or simply unemployment/lack of anywhere else to be (like the deaf man in Hemmingway’s “A Well-Lighted Place”), all consequently reminded of how dire and empty life can be, both when you see what some people have to resort to just to pay the bills, or ironically when you see the mass of people who spend their lives so steadfastly dedicated to their jobs greatly due to just staying locked into that conventional lifestyle; a seemingly endlessly self-serving , endlessly intimidating influence.

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