VIS 129C: Modern Art History


Elizabeth Losh

Course Description:

The twentieth century was a remarkable period for state-sponsored and state-sanctioned art, one that could be said to encompass Soviet Socialist Realism and American Abstract Expressionism at the same historical moment. From the Mexican revolution in 1910 to the reunification movements in the two Germanys, patriotism, citizenship, and competing values in systems of governance have been important themes in modern art history. This course in visual rhetoric emphasizes readings about public art that resist overly simplistic stock propaganda theories; it includes works by Latour, Benjamin, and Debord on the reading list. The course also assigns a series of creative exercises designed to encourage UCSD student artists to explore their own relationships with the fictions of state authority and the representational aesthetics of government and civil society. For more information about this course, visit the syllabus at


Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism <available electronically via the library portal from on-campus computers.>

Mary Schmidt Campbell and Randy Martin, Artistic Citizenship: A Public Voice for the Arts

Other materials are available on WebCT.

Grading is based on two papers, a take-home final examination, and active discussion in class

Assignment 1 or 2 30%

Assignment 3 or 4 30%

Class Participation 15%

Final Exam 25%


Schedule of Assignments and Readings:

Week One:

The art of the state: Eight course themes and an overview of state-sponsored and state-sanctioned art before 1900

Reading: Bruno Latour, "From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik," Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (on Web CT)

Current controversies: Governor Paul LePage, artist Judy Taylor, and the aftermath; Sarah Palin and the NEA; the cutting of redevelopment funds and the impact on Casa Familiar (what about development and 2% for art if Art Does Not Read Like a Sentence)

The Eight Themes

Week Two:

No Class

Reading: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism <available electronically via the library portal from on-campus computers.>

Week Three:

Signifying patriotism  Emblems, icons, flags, and other signifiers

Reading: Mary Schmidt Campbell and Randy Martin, Artistic Citizenship: A Public Voice for the Arts (selections)

Reading: Michael Taussig, The Magic of the State (selections)

Understanding the rhetoric of government: The values matrix

From high art to kitsch, case studies from the mid-century U.S. context: the miniatures of Arthur Szyk and the paintings of Norman Rockwell.

How do we understand the function of instant capitals?

Notes on the Reading

Flyers in Afghanistan: 1, 2, 3, 4

Political Imaginaries - Choose One:

Assignment One (creative option): Research a country not recognized as a country by the United Nations. It can be a country that has never been a modern nation-state or one that once was a nation with distinct political borders but no longer exists as a sovereign entity. Examples could include places like Kurdistan, Sheba, Biafra, Crete, Yugoslavia, Tuva, Thuringia, Transylvania, The Bear Flag Republic, Toro, etc. Your research should include work on traditional arts and crafts and the cultural symbology in the area. Create a work of art that is part of a propaganda campaign launched by this nation after it has colonized and/or conquered the United States that is intended to make former American citizens feel good about their new motherland.

Assignment One (academic option): In the twentieth century, the architecture of capital cities was an important part of a nation's cultural and political identity. Write a short 6-10 page paper, using scholarly sources, about how statecraft was represented in the official architecture of a deliberately planned capital city in the twentieth century. Examples could include Brasilia, Islamabad, Ankara, Ottowa, Canberra, New Delhi, Abuja, etc.

Week Four:

Viva La Revolución: Representing colonialism and its overthrow

Reading: Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, Mexico at the World's Fairs: Crafting a Modern Nation (selections) <available electronically via the library portal from on-campus computers.>

Reading: José Luis Cuevas, "The Cactus Curtain"

Reading: Juan Bruce Novoa, "Mathias Goeritz"

Mexican art from the world's fairs to Ciudad Universitaria

Notes on the Reading

Week Five:

Image Politics: Weimar and the Nazi Racial State

Image alteration technologies, the aesthetic of montage, and political new orders

Reading: Friederich Wolf, "Art is a Weapon"

Reading: Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

Reading: Stephanie Barron, Degenerate Art (selections)

Viewing: Kuhle Wampe (1932)

Viewing: Triumph des Willens (1935)

Viewing: Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss (2008)

Further Viewing: Prisoner of Paradise (2002)

Notes on the Reading

Membership and Values - Choose one:

Assignment Two (creative option): Research a country to which you feel a personal connection other than the United States. Your relationship to the country might be one of a linguistic, genealogical, intellectual, or sentimental character. Create a patriotic work of art that reflects an aspect of national character from the values matrix that is not conventionally associated with that country.

Assignment Two (academic option): At the turn of the last century, temporary expositions were an important mode of political display. Write a short 6-10 page paper, using scholarly sources, about the history and aesthetics of supposedly pre-civilized cultures on view for spectators. Examples could include the Palace of the Colonies in the 1897 International Exposition in Brussells, the African Village in the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, or the Philippine Village in the 1904 World's Fair. What aspects of the values matrix are absent among these "primitives"?

Week Six:


Writing the Art History Paper

Please Use Chicago Manual of Style citation format

Presentations and Final Examination Format Discussion (3 essays - 90% - and 5 short answers - 10%)

Making things Public I: Labor and war in public works WPA to WWII

Reading: Robert G. Kennedy, When Art Worked (selections)

Reading: Victoria Grieve, The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture (selections)

Reading: William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (selections)

Viewing: Ken Burns America: Thomas Hart Benton (1988)

Notes on the Reading

Thomas Hart Benton's A Social History of Indiana (1933) with the Klan panel and A Social History of the state of Missouri (1936)

Murals at Coit Tower, Detroit Institute of the Arts ("Detroit Industry"), City College of San Francisco ("Pan American Unity"), Rincon Center, Olvera Street ("Tropical America"), Rockerfeller Center ("Man at the Crossroads" and "American Progress"), and Harlem Hospital.

(See this interactive tour of "Detroit Industry" at the DIA.)

Post Office Murals

Treasury Department Section of Fine Arts murals at the Lakeview Post Office, Plymouth Post Office, Renovo Post Office, Nappannee Post Office, etc.

The Venice Post Office Mural

The Santa Monica Public Library Mural

The Belle Baranceanu Seven Arts Mural (construction and demolition)

Photography from the Tennessee Valley Authority by Lewis Hine.

Photography from the Farm Security Administration by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks

Ansel Adams' commission from Harold Ickes.

Balboa Park

Sculpture at San Diego State University, Hollywood Bowl, and the Hoover Dam,

Works in A New Deal for the Arts at the National Archives

Works in They Drew Fire: Combat Artists of World War II

and The Powers of Persuasion

Viewing: Why We Fight (1942-1945) - Role of Frank Capra

Animation: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Donald Duck, and Porky Pig get into the act of selling war bonds, supporting rationing and secrecy, and ridiculing and demonizing the enemy.

Propaganda posters

Edward Steichen and Carl Sandburg's The Road to Victory (1942) and Steichen's Power in the Pacific (1945)

In contrast, how did Lange and Adams represent Japanese relocation?

Question: Are embedded photojournalists in Iraq creating state-sponsored or state-sanctioned art? Why is this the most iconic photograph of the war? Why did he lose his assignment?

Week Seven:

Guest appearance by Alex Tarr of the Living New Deal Project

Making Things Public II: The Worker's Paradise

Readings on Russian Constructivism and Socialist Realism

Reading: Victor Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917-1946 (selections)

Reading: Matthew Cullerne Bown, Socialist Realist Painting (selections)

Reading: Primary Sources, including Gorky's "On Socialist Realism" and the review "Chaos Instead of Music" from Pravda (in response to Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District)

Viewing: Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Viewing: Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Viewing: Grigori Aleksandrov's Circus (1936)

Suggested Viewing: Andrei Rublev (1966) -- Why would this film not be considered "good" socialist cinema?

Notes on the Reading

Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Malevich, and Meyerhold

Socialist Realism on ARTStor

The aesthetics of the Moscow Metro

Making Things Secret: The Commissar Vanishes

Counterfactual Photography

Making Things Public - Choose One

Assignment Three (creative option): Create a twenty-first century work of art that is an homage to a style in state-sponsored or state-sanctioned art from the twentieth century.

Assignment Three (academic option): Muralism on public buildings has been an important style in state-sponsored and state-sanctioned art in the twentieth century. Write a short 6-10 page paper, using scholarly sources, about a muralist who worked for or represented the interests of local or federal government at some point during his or her career. Examples could include Paul Cadmus, Fletcher Martin, Kent Twitchell, Keith Haring, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Santiago Martinez Delgado, etc.

Week Eight:

Making things Public III: Representing democracy, freedom, political participation, and deliberation

Reading: John Brown, "Arts Diplomacy: The Neglected Aspect of Cultural Diplomacy"

Reading: Louis Menand, "Unpopular Front: American art and the Cold War"

Reading: Eva Cockcroft, "Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War," Pollock and After: The Critical Debates

Reading: Ann Eden Gibson, Abstract Expressionism Other Politics (selections)

Reading: Greg Castillo, Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design ("Introduction" and "Better Living Through Modernism") <available electronically via the library portal from on-campus computers.>

Viewing: Animal Farm (1954)

Viewing: Red Nightmare (1962)

Viewing: Painters on Painting (1973)

Notes on the Reading

The New American Painting 1958-1959 and its tour of Europe

Motherwell's Elegy to the Spanish republic vs. Jasper Johns' flag

Artists involved in arts festivals sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom and International Association for Cultural Freedom: Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning, Rothko, etc.

Abstract Expressionism gallery

Kitchen Debate gallery

Week Nine:

Making things Public IV: Neoliberal nationalism and Postmodern spectacle

Reading: Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (selections)

Viewing: Beijing 2008 Complete Opening Ceremony (2008)

Recommended Viewing: A State of Mind (2004)

Notes on the Reading

Ai Weiwei and the Bird's Nest Stadium

The Beijing Olympics and Zhang Yimou and the theme of "Light the Fire Within" (carrying the torch ad, preparation, a child star with "Ode to the Motherland," the drummers, the scholars, etc.)

The North Korean Mass Games (the human flag, frolicking, finale, etc.)

[Note that this week there is a story about a recent Marianne]

Week Ten:


Recent Monuments and Scandals: public history, public money, and public memory

Reading: Richard Bolton, Culture Wars: Documents from Recent Controversies in the Arts (selections)

Reading: Stephen Dubin, Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions (selections)

Further Reading: Stephen Dubin, Displays of Power: Memory and Amnesia in the American Museum (selections)

Viewing: Black White + Gray (2007)

Viewing: Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1995)

Notes on the Reading

Overview of primary and secondary sources

Photography by Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Cindy Sherman

Performance art by Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes

LACE as a performance art space

Don Gray's essays and his works

Memorial sculpture by Maya Lin and Robert Arneson

Controversial imagery on ARTstor

"Jerry's Painting" in Parks and Recreation

Choice and Conflict - Choose One

Assignment Four (creative option): Choose a significant historical event from the local area and create a grant proposal for a work of art that commemorates the event. Your audience is a local arts committee.

Assignment Four (academic option): Choose a recent memorial or monument created by someone other than Maya Lin and write a short 6-10 page paper, using scholarly sources, about the collectives represented, the deliberative processes that led to its creation, and the response from the public to its display.

Two conferences about politics and art this week:

Designing Geopolitics

Political Equator 3

Finals Week Meeting on Monday, June 6, 11:30AM-2:20PM:

Grant culture: The rhetorics of public art

Charles Bernstein, "Against National Poetry Month As Such"

"National Endowment of the Arts Funds Construction of $1.3 Billion Poem"

Manifestos by Charles Gaines

Forgotten Monuments of Yugoslavia

Notes on the Reading

Artistic Citizenship (selections)

The U.S. State Department, the Bronx Museum, and smART Power

Take Home Final