Art and Labor: The Visual Culture of Work in Early Twentieth-Century United States (Session A)
Mon-Thurs / 12-2:00pm
In the early twentieth century, millions of Americans entered the workforce for the first time. Artists and producers of visual culture depicted and documented these workers, some of whom engaged in jobs that had not existed in previous centuries—including taxi dancers, braceros, and airline flight attendants—while others labored in long-established occupations. This class will have several aims. First, by looking at a wide range of visual pieces that take work/workers as their subject and by remaining attentive to gender, race, and immigration, we will observe how these pieces often strove to instill a sense of dignity and even awe in workers, from sharecroppers to dentists to construction crews. Second, it will examine how art and visual culture could both highlight and obscure work-related issues such as child labor, dangerous working conditions, and labor union activities. Third, we will study how artists responded to the Great Depression. During those years, artists faced a paradox: the Federal Art Project of the government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired thousands of them to open community art centers and create public art installations and propaganda during a time of mass unemployment. We will conclude by examining the World War II era, when unprecedented job opportunities opened to women and people of color.
Throughout the course, we will cover both renowned and obscure artists/producers of visual culture, from Diego Rivera’s grandiose murals that extolled the contributions of agriculture and industry to Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones’ intimate portraits of department store “shop girls.” Everyday items such as labor union buttons and pamphlets as well as lush paintings of so-called housewives will provide us with insight as to how artists and visual culture producers portrayed both the struggles and victories of people who embodied the work ethic long associated with the United States.
This course will have two exams (a short essay midterm and a longer essay final) as well as brief written responses (1 or 2 due per week). You will also embark on a local field trip to write a formal analysis of a WPA art piece. Please note that attendance and participation in class will count toward a part of the final grade.
This course fulfills the following Major requirements: Geographical area (C) and Chronological period (III).