Reading and Writing about Visual Experience: Ambiguities
"As for myself, … I prefer to spend my time creating clouds rather than dispersing them, questioning opinions rather than forming them…" – Diderot
Much of the study of art history involves the identification and categorization of objects, and the resulting articulation of a stylistic and historical trajectory for the development of art. This endeavor, important as it is for our understanding of art in context, involves prioritizing the coherence of the story over the irreducible complexity and fascinating specificity of any single art object. However, certain key objects in the history of art frustrate attempts to fix their meanings within this story. Through historical mischance, cultural displacement, or even purposeful mystery on the part of an artist, the status or meaning of these works remains highly contested and obstreperously ambiguous. How do art historians approach these objects, and how do they define their goals for studying them?
This class will be organized around five Western art objects that are both canonical and particularly puzzling:
1) the paintings in Room 5 of the Villa of the Mysteries outside Pompeii, believed to have been painted around 60 BCE
2) The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533
3) Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez, 1656
4) A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884 by Georges Seurat, completed in 1886
5) Marilyn, by Andy Warhol, 1962
We will read a number of texts that deal with each object, in order to see what different scholars can glean through different modes of inquiry. This emphasis on methodology and focus on conversations that form around particular objects will also allow for the prioritizing of close reading and analyzing of the texts themselves, and we will therefore be introduced to the broader spectrum of ways to look at and to think and write about art. We will also be practicing the basic skills involved in researching, reading and writing effectively in an academic context.