2013-2014 Art History Courses
First-Year Studies: Archi/Texts: Buildings and Philosophies, Environments and Interactions, From Periclean Athens to Contemporary Los Angeles and Beyond
Readings, lectures, presentations, and discussions in this course will focus on major statements made by architects, critics, and philosophers dealing with the built landscape from Athens in the fifth century to present-day Los Angeles and World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China. Authors include Plato and Aristotle, St. Augustine, Leon Battista Alberti, Denis Diderot, Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wight, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Jane Jacobs, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, Reyner Banham, Frank Gehry, and Thom Mayne. Readings will range from Aristotle’s Politics and Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture (73BCE) to Loos’s Ornament and Crime (1909) and Koolhaas’s Junkspace (2000) and beyond. Emphasis will be on close reading of texts, historical context for ideas, and buildings that are prescribed, described, or proscribed by theory in practice. Environmental issues will be assimilated into historical and sociological, as well as scientific, context. The first assignment will deal with the uses of literature in developing a critical theory; the second will be class presentations on theorists and attitudes toward architecture in the ancient world. Class will be broken into firms that will develop responses to texts and to a particular architectural program and project in second semester—the design of a retrofitted student center and campus plan for Sarah Lawrence College. Conference projects may focus on a variety of architectural venues: new towns, world’s fairs, religious structures of symbolic (or other) import, architectural NGOs, favellas, and utopia, both inside and outside the Western tradition.
East vs. West: Europe, the Mediterranean, and Western Asia from Antiquity to the Modern Age
Historically, competition or conflict between the European or Mediterranean West and the regions of the Middle East has been seen as a struggle between Christian and Muslim worlds, with roots in the era of the Crusades whose precedent and implications reach into the present time. While this course will focus extensively on the medieval period, it seeks to do so by situating the relations between Christian Europe and the Muslim world within a larger context as the result of geopolitical patterns that long antedated the emergence of Christianity or Islam. In the fall, the course will begin with the Greek invasion of the Near East under Alexander as a war of retribution for the Persian invasion of Greece more than a century earlier. We will consider how the political structure and culture of the multiethnic Hellenistic Greek kingdoms emerged from the wreckage of the Persian Empire and how Rome subsequently built on Hellenistic Greek experience and conflict with the Near East in establishing its empire. We will examine the emergence of Christianity as an example of a Roman or Western response to an originally Eastern religion and, conversely, the emergence of the Islamic faith and its new empire as an Eastern challenge to the Christianized Roman Empire of Late Antiquity. In the spring, we will see how this approach affords a very different view of the Crusades and the battle for the Holy Land as the outgrowth of longstanding cultural and political interactions or competitions that transcend religious faith and doctrine. The course will look at Christian and Muslim cultural relations in Spain and then close by examining the rise of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which originated as a Muslim regime in Eastern Europe and became a major power in Asia only after it had conquered the remaining symbol of the old Christian Roman Empire, Constantinople, in 1453. We will consider primary historical and literary sources, as well as major artistic monuments.
The Paradox of Painting: Pictures and Practices, Histories and Theories, in Renaissance and Baroque Art, 1500-1700
Annibale Carracci’s painting (1597-9) of St. Margaret, an Early Christian martyr, shows the saint pointing upward while looking outward and leaning on an altar inscribed, “Sursum Corda” (Lift Up Your Hearts). An exploration of the multiple meanings and paradoxes of this image, admonition, epigram, and emblem form an introduction to the basic questions and challenges of this course. How is art to achieve this lifting up? Who or what should be lifted: the artists, the patron, the viewer, the material, the world? Lifting up from what and to what or to whom? Lifting the heart, the head, the mind, the body? Are all the arts and all the subjects of the visual arts supposed to serve this same purpose? Does this admonition pertain to aesthetic, social, and historical issues, as well as to the theological and political? What about the linguistic implications: Can an exalted “classical” language exist side-by-side with a dynamic, naturalistic vernacular? The course will cover the art of 16th-century Italy, the Italian High Renaissance, as it frames the questions that painters, sculptors, and architects throughout Europe mediated in the following era, commonly called the Age of the Baroque. Included in the first semester will be studies of major artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Titian and art styles such as Mannerism; in the second semester, Caravaggio, Bernini, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Poussin and the style of Classicism, among others. First-semester group conferences focus on the challenges posed by the career of Michelangelo; second semester, on the issues in art and architecture posed by the career of Bernini.
Islamic Art and Society: 632-2013
This course will explore some of the cultural, political, and social meanings that can be drawn from the history of the art and architecture of Islamic polities and of other pluralistic societies in which Islam has played a part. We will seek to understand the relationship between the religion of Islam and the arts produced in lands where Muslims are among the creators of visual culture, using works of art and architecture as documents of social and political meaning. The course will begin in Arabia in the seventh century and continue to the Mediterranean, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, and Asia. Finally, we will look at the arts of Islam as a contemporary global phenomenon, including Islamic arts in Europe and America. This course will be offered as a small lecture.
The Artful Science: Photography and Society, 1825-1919
When, why, and how was photography invented? This course introduces students to the history of photography in the 19th and early 20th centuries, from the medium’s invention with the parallel, contested origin stories of William Henry Fox Talbot and Nicéphore Niepce to the first motion pictures and until the earliest instances of Dada photomontage. Readings from a variety of disciplines, including historical documents and writings by artists and critics, aid us in considering the contradictions inherent to photography as a medium as we investigate its role as both art form and science. Examining photographic practices in fields as diverse as fashion, avant-garde art, anthropology, architecture, advertising, and political documentary, we will ask how early photographs were shaped by and, in turn, shaped practitioners’ conception of reality.
Writing, Painting, and Performance Since the Late 19th Century
Performance is a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon but also a subject whose definition is a matter of great controversy. It has been asserted by some scholars that the period after World War II saw the rise of “performance” as an identifiable art genre; yet, in the same period, sociologists like Erving Goffman argued that almost all features of social interaction could be treated as “performances.” The ambiguity of the word makes research into the visual arts both fascinating and contentious. This lecture course will take a broader view of the developments in the use of the term as has been applied to three central artistic mediums: paint, writing, and the inscrutable genre “performance art.” Students will closely examine several canonical works from these three mediums produced over the course of the period from the late 19th to early 21st centuries in order to develop and specify their ideas on deeper questions about the nature of art, ritual, social engagement, and even the nature of action itself. Close readings of works of art and literature—such as the writing of Henry David Thoreau and Antonin Artaud, the paintings of Jackson Pollock, the performances and photographs of Carolee Schneemann, and the music of John Cage—will be balanced against investigation of social history and discussions of the theoretical problems at stake in the issue. Theoretical writings from the history of 20th-century philosophy will be used to supplement students’ investigations. These disparate materials will allow us to focus on a network of questions whose connection is rarely interrogated. Why did “performance” take on the properties of an artistic genre only after World War II in a period when material standards of living had hit a peak? Why did performers from this period so often express their indebtedness to painting, and why is the genre grouped among the visual arts rather than treated as a subgenre of theatre? What difference does it make to the “material” of performance that, unlike traditional theatre, it need not comply with a script? Is documentation simply a means of delivering an ephemeral work of art to people who were not part of the audience, or is it an intrinsic component of the work itself? Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, why does the idea of the “work of art” encompass something as ephemeral as a performance or as enduring as a painting?
Ancient Albion: Art and Culture in the British Isles from Stonehenge to the Viking Invasions
Given their geographical setting at the northwestern extreme of Europe, the arts and cultures of “Albion,” or Britain and Ireland, have often been described by the term “insular” in the sense of isolated, discrete, or peripheral, yet nothing could be further from the truth. No less than six Roman emperors spent time in Britain, and four came to power there. To a great extent, Irish clerics were responsible for the survival of classical learning during the Dark Ages. Indeed, throughout history, cultural developments in the British Isles were intimately related to ideas and events on the European Continent and the Mediterranean. Following this basic premise, in the fall semester the course will examine civilization in Britain and Ireland from the late Stone Age or Megalithic period, through the Bronze and Early Iron Ages, to the coming of the Celts and the Roman conquest. In the spring, we will focus on later Roman Britain, Irish monasticism, and the emergence of Anglo-Saxon culture down to the arrival of the Vikings. At every turn, we will consider interactions with the urban civilizations to the south and west—the early Aegean, Greece, Rome, and the early medieval Continent—to discover that Albion was an integral part of the political, religious, and economic forces that have shaped the art and history of Europe up to the present time.
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.
Depicting Decadence: Bohemians, Anarchists, and “New Women” in European Art and Culture, 1863-1914
In this seminar, we will examine fin-de-siècle reactions to the depiction of decadence in the painting, printmaking, music, and decorative arts of the era. Analyzing the debates of critics and artists in Paris, Vienna, and London, we will write about the newly emergent figures of the anarchist, the aesthete, la femme nouvelle, and the dandy and craft researched arguments about cultural anxieties underlying the psychological phenomena of synesthesia, ennui, and hysteria. We will ask: Is the dandy a subversive hero, as Charles Baudelaire suggests? Is ornament a crime? What made figures like the “new woman” and the androgynous aesthete so threatening? Readings include: Deborah Silverman, Art Nouveau in Fin-de-siècle France; Max Nordau, Degeneration; Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime; Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa; Richard Wagner, The Artwork of the Future; Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams; Carl Schorske, Fin-De-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture.