Assignment 1: "Ways of Seeing, Means of Knowing," for Introduction to Modern Art, 1750-1900

While the study of visual art means as many things as the people who take it up bring to it, at its core—to my mind—what’s most exciting about Art History has always been the opportunity to explore new ways of seeing to access new means of knowing.

 

For me, this is all about politics and power. That is, to understand how society organizes itself on the basis of what kinds of knowledge to serve what interests. As a scholar of modernism, I’m most interested in art forms that drive towards critical forms of democracy. These forms are vital because they provide both an important and self-reflexive means to reflect peaceful means of coexisting whereby power is shared and society becomes organized to provide for the full satisfaction of everyone’s needs.

 

Most Art History courses that you will take will be based on a model that differs from this one. That is, an instructor will lecture. They will expect you to memorize what they say and what you read. Then, synthesize this information for a set of timed examinations where you will identify artworks and say what you’ve learned. While this is valuable, I believe the better way to start is for you to learn and do this work that you might ordinarily receive through lecture by developing active reading and interpretive skills, immediately. We all have a shared ability to make sense of the world around us. I believe that we can make meaning of the works we’ll encounter on a critical democratic basis that links with some of the most powerful—and empowering—aspects of the artistic projects associated with global modernisms in all of their geographic and aesthetic diversity we will together engage this semester.

 

At the core of this skill is one usually more often associated with the study of literature than the study of arts: explication. Indeed, the majority of the work you’ll do this term will be to promote new ways of seeing to explore new ways of knowing that hinge upon the explication of discrete works of art. To start, I wanted to give you an example of how I take up this work in terms of my own research to get you started.

 

It’s an explication of an image that appeared in the eighteenth-century British artist and poet William Blake’s illuminated, or illustrated, book Milton: A Poem, created around 1818.

 

The annotations I've added to the image comprise responses to the things I’ve read and ideas I bring to the artwork from the courses I’ve taken, reading I’ve done, and sense of what I find important to be thinking about now, all of which inform how I see the image and how it helps me to arrive at new ways of knowing.

 

This all to say, that when you take up this work, there are no right or wrong answers. In my responses to your critical image explications and analyses, I might point out ways you can expand, clarify, and be more precise in your readings. But it is about generating new concepts and modes of understanding in the present on the basis of artworks produced in the past.

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