Reading and Writing about Visual Experience: Esoterica
Monday, Wednesday: 12:30-2:00pm
Esoteric art is obscure and intentionally so. Unintelligible to the uninitiated, esoterica is shaped by systems of thought and practice at odds with institutional or normative modes of vision, especially those commonly classified as scientific and modern. This class examines how contemporary scholars have attempted to alleviate this obscurantism with descriptions, contextualizations, and analyses of artifacts from esoteric cultures around the world. The class thus offers a comparative view of esotericism, and addresses a variety of questions: What constitutes the material practice of alchemy, and what, if anything, does Hermetic alchemy have to do with Daoist alchemy? Why make a homunculus? How does a maṇḍala work? How have scholars positioned their writing relative to mystical and occult icons? How have they argued for the relevance of esoteric art in the world today?
Taught from the vantage of art history, the class responds to these questions by providing students with a basic art historical grounding from which to begin writing about the art of esotericism. Students will practice looking carefully at relevant objects, analyzing scholarly claims, and conducting independent research; they will draw from these skills as they craft thoughtful and well-organized written compositions. Repetition and revision are key to these practices. A diversity of forms, formats, and performances will be examined, with special attention given to objects collected locally, such as in the Berkeley Art Museum. Readings will incorporate texts by art historians and other scholars working in related fields and disciplines. Each student will work on a relevant research project culminating in a 10-12 page paper.