CORE 101 Symbols and Conceptual Systems
Professor J. Bowlt, Department of Slavic Literatures and Languages >>
Professor K. Flint, Departments of Art History and English >>
Professor D. Treuer, Department of English>>
Modern Russian Art
The current vogue for Russian art is a clear indication that the subject of Russian art is no longer distant and inaccessible, but has become an important part of the public domain. Current conditions (e.g., exhibition, publication, and movie projects) point to an increasing, universal interest in the Russian visual arts and to a reevaluation of them precisely within an international and comparative framework. What were the links between Russian and German Romanticism? What did Realism mean for Russian, French, and American painters (and writers) of the late 19th century? What happens to art when a socio-political transformation occurs of the magnitude of the Bolshevik Revolution? How do we explain the parallels between Stalin's, Hitler's, and Mussolini's Realisms? Is it fair to talk of a "new wave" in contemporary Russian art? How have émigré artists and architects affected our own art scene, right here in Los Angeles? These are just some of the many questions that will be addressed and discussed within the context of "Symbols and Conceptual Systems: Modern Russian Art" and that will connect Russian art (which has often been regarded as the "periphery") directly to Western developments (the "mainstream").
REQUIRED READINGBowlt, John. Moscow, St. Petersburg 1900-1920: Russian Art and Culture in the Silver Age. New York: Vendome Press, and London: Thames and Hudson, 2008.
Writing and Photography
Photographs are everywhere in daily life. This course invites us to look critically at writing about photography, and to ask what might be the distinctive characteristics of the photographic medium that have caused people to write about it in particular ways. To this end, we will look at some classic writings about photography by such critics as Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag; we will read fiction and poetry that take photography and photographers as their subject, and watch several films that raise issues about photography, representation, and the gaze. We will explore what it means to write about the history of photography, and how one might critique contemporary art photographs. Among the general topics that we will cover will be questions of authenticity and manipulation; identity, portraiture and self-presentation; documentary work; invisible and illegible photographs; news photography and the paparazzi; narrative photography; photography and the environment; advertising and photography; photography, trauma, and loss, and the place of the photograph within autobiography and memory-work. This is not a course in practical photography—but you should be prepared to take, upload, and share photographs on occasion during the course (a simple digital camera—even a decent cell-phone image will be enough!).
In many ways the dominant narrative form of the late 20th and early 21st century is that of trauma narrative. From reality TV to memoir to collective social/political experience, narratives of trauma and recovery dominant the cultural landscape. This broad trend is perhaps most noticeable in our reaction to disaster and terrorism. Trauma provokes a need for response (that includes and is not limited to emotion, politics, war, etc.) and the response motivates and is motivated by a narrative, a conceptual system, full of symbols, tropes, memes, images, dialogue, and on and on. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (and the responses to them) brings this larger problem into acute focus.
Arguably, the most important political and cultural moment of the last 20 years is the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. And yet just what is important about the attacks and what has come after is often grossly misunderstood and/or misconstrued. The problem, in a nutshell: Our collective ignorance and misunderstandings about the Middle East led, in many ways, to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, as such our response to global terrorism has likewise been mismanaged. Our problem is a problem of thought. The solution: to try and learn to see the world and our part in it differently. The proposed course would bring students together at USC and, later in the course, to New York and Ground Zero itself to better understand the dimensions and effects of 9/11 and to find solutions to the “thought error” that created the event and shaped our response to it.
For Americans—if not for the rest of the world—the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001 continue to loom. The towers are gone. But they are still there, conceptually. For better and worse, the attacks, like the Twin Towers they destroyed, occupy the “conceptual horizon” of our world and shape our understanding of that world. The “problem” posed by the attacks on 9/11 the course will tackle is this: in the fourteen years since the attacks the Twin Towers have come to mean a great many things, and those meanings are often painfully divorced from the “real world” reasons for the attacks and the “real world” effects of and responses to the attacks. By bringing a study of 9/11 into the world and into the place where the events took place it is hoped we can see beyond the tropes, symbols, memes, and political attitudes—the cultural/political residue deposited on top of the event—and see the events more clearly and in a way productive for our modern lives.
This class will use the Twin Towers (themselves symbols—symbols of what? Of capitalism? Or its vulnerability? Of America? Or the twilight of American power? Of economic triumph? Or American hegemony? Of freedom? Or terror?) and the attacks on September 11, 2001 as a way to think about the way a variety of systems—capitalism, colonialism, war, victim narratives, trauma narratives, and the American Dream—are “nervously pleached” (to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare) in our modern world. What do the towers mean and to whom do they have those meanings? What can we see in them and their disappearance?