Reading and Writing about Visual Experience: Downcast Eyes: Episodes from a History of Iconoclasm
Monday | Wednesday: 3:30 - 5:00pm
And discontent is in my downcast eye
Alexander Craig, 1606
By his pale and downcast look, and disfigured face
François Fénélon, 1699
“Downcast” describes both the ruined, overthrown, or demolished artifact as well as the downward-moving gaze. Tracing an arc from depositions from the cross, to the death of kings, to the “death of painting,” this course will attend to both broken images and an aesthetics of dejection. In investigating the political and religious motives for destroying images and the forms of representation that emerge as a consequence, we’ll ask: How does the biblical prohibition on graven images produce discourses of the icon, the idol, and the fetish? What is the aesthetic afterlife of the broken statue? How does “iconoclasm” move from naming a literal practice to becoming a figure for other forms of poetic and discursive critique? In what way is this antipathy toward representation connected to violence against human lives?
The semester will be organized around four moments in Western art and history: We’ll begin with an examination of the early Christian icon, where we’ll discuss different “ways of seeing”—devotional and critical, historical and aesthetic. We’ll then investigate forms of iconoclastic violence during the Protestant Reformation and the new aesthetic modes that followed in its wake, including the descriptive and the satirical. In the next unit, we’ll consider episodes from the Age of Revolutions—the fall of the English monarchy, the Jacobin Revolution in France, and the slave uprising that overthrew colonial rule in Haiti. Finally, we’ll turn to instances of postmodern and postcolonial “writing on the wall”—moments in the twentieth century where social revolution is explicitly linked to avant-garde or even anti-art aesthetics. Culminating in a consideration of the recent movement against Confederate monuments, each unit will take up a few artifacts as case studies and set them in relation to a theoretical or literary text.
Throughout the semester, our inquiry will be shaped by practice: the goal of an R1B course is to improve students’ ability to write clearly, effectively, and accurately about subjects of intellectual complexity, as well as learn the methods for effective scholarly research. Thus, students should expect to spend a great deal of time reading and rereading, looking and looking again, and, of course, writing, which is to say developing the powers of description and argumentation. Students will also be asked to write brief weekly responses. Major assignments will include one short (5- to 6-page) guided research paper, a mid-term creative project, a presentation, and a 10- to 12-page research paper. For these final papers, students will be encouraged to expand our inquiry by choosing an artifact from any iconoclastic movement that interests them.