Art and the American Social Imaginary


This seminar is the first part of a two-semester course investigating the multifarious ways in which Americans pictured themselves and their society from the post-Revolutionary period to the present. The course aims to be selective. The United States is such a vast country, with such a large populace, that no survey could possibly exhaust the wealth of details offered by more than a century of political interaction and artistic expression. By selecting certain canonical works of art from the likes of John Singleton Copley, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Law Olmsted, Emily Dickinson, and Thomas Eakins, we can begin to approach a series of questions that have been central to political and artistic discourse in the United States: Who inherited the legacy of the Revolution? What kind of education is appropriate for a democratic republic, and how should its citizens represent themselves? What is the relationship between capitalism and governance, and does slavery discredit American conceptions of economic freedom? How does one represent the land and the city? And, lastly, what are the specific American contributions to artistic and social modernity? The first semester will focus on the period starting from the ratification of the Constitution and ending with the First World War, treating relations among issues such as the debates about uniquely “American” art and literature, self-knowledge, the market economy, slavery, early women’s rights, and the nature of republican democracy. The second semester, covering the period from 1918 to the present, will focus on the drastic shifts in many of these ideas brought on by radical changes in the forms of modern art, the development of an industrial society, the transformation of the natural environment, and the gestation of the “new social movements” of the postwar period. By selecting certain literary and artistic monuments, we will explore a multitude of issues and ask questions about how the arts can be used to frame political and economic issues, how law and the idea of legality influenced the cultural life of Americans, how different social injustices were negotiated in thought and art, and how even the notions of land and property had been figured by the visual and verbal arts.