Reading and Writing about Visual Experience: Representing Power, Rights and Liberty
The relationship between art and power is no secret. Go to any museum and you’re likely to see a host of artworks that depict a political leader, perhaps in celebratory glory, perhaps with critical derision. In this course, we’ll start from this basic binary (political propaganda vs. social critique) and explore the many conceptual possibilities that exist within the relationship between power and art. How, for instance, does the representation of power change depending on the medium (visual vs. textual), the genre (portrait, history painting, novel, film, etc.), or the type of socio-political power represented (capitalist democracy, feudal monarchy, and so on)?
We will explore these questions by considering a variety of “texts,” not only from the visual arts but also from the literary, as well as works that fuse the visual and the verbal, such as films and graphic novels. Moreover, because political power itself depends on systems of representation (diplomats, elected representatives, etc.), we will discuss what unique aesthetic concerns arise when power is represented in art. From this vantage point, even our literary texts will trigger questions relevant to the study of visual culture, as in them we will frequently encounter ekphrastic pauses where visual art is depicted through words, scenic moments of theatricality, and descriptions that linger over objects and spaces.
Our historical trajectory will likewise be expansive, but we will especially consider (1) the poetry, sculpture, and architecture of Classical Rome, as well as Rome’s enduring visual legacy in Renaissance Europe and French Neoclassicism; (2) the history of European Colonialism and American Post-Colonialism from Shakespeare’s Tempest and Theodor de Bry’s New World engravings to the murals of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco; and (3) the Post-War period in the United States, where we will place Pop Artists such as Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns in conversation with works seen as more truly “popular” and “middlebrow” such as the paintings of Norman Rockwell and the Hollywood film Pleasantville.
As a writing intensive course, our analytical readings will be conducted with an eye toward the end goal of being able to express our thoughts in writing with clarity and sophistication. Furthermore, as an R1B course, we will work on developing our research skills by dissecting scholarly arguments relevant to the study of visual culture. This will naturally include works by art historians, but we will also pay attention to ways that visual concerns are taken up by scholars from other disciplines, such as literary theorists, sociologists, and historians.