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Hampshire College (Amherst, MA 01002-3359)
Karen R. Koehler (Project Director: September 2013 to June 2016)
NEH Enduring Questions Course on Differing Conceptions of Art Over Time

The development of a course for third-semester students on differing conceptions of art from prehistoric times through the present day.

The development of a course for third-semester students on differing conceptions of "art" from prehistoric times through the present day. Drawing from selected texts in philosophy and literature, as well as examples in music, film, architecture, performance, and design, the class on the question, What is art? examines whether art is fundamental to the human psyche or vital to the look of the world we live in. In the first of five sections, Origins, students consider the urge to produce art. They view Werner Herzog's film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which explores the earliest cave paintings though the lens of contemporary desires, and compare early fertility figures with contemporary performance art. This section concludes with essays on critical theory by Martin Heidegger and Theodor Adorno. In the second section, Authenticity, students discuss essays by Walter Benjamin and Jonathon Keats while investigating the stylistic effects and legal ramifications of appropriation in the work of visual artists Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Shepard Fairey. Shakespeare's King Lear is paired with film adaptations by Andrew McCullough, Jean Luc-Goddard, and Akira Kurosawa as encouragement to consider how cultural differences are expressed in the act of dramatization. The third unit, Spirituality and the Transcendent, focuses on the ideas of eighteenth-century aesthetic philosophers Kant, Burke, and Goethe, and the poetry and pictures of William Blake, Francisco Goya, and William Wordsworth. The fourth unit, Mimesis, explores the relationship between real life and representation in readings from Plato, Susan Sontag, and Jacques Lacan and portraits ranging from Roman busts to Leonardo, Picasso, and Arbus. Participants also read Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The final unit, Commitment, explores the socio-political dimensions of art with selections from Diderot and Marx, as well as Tolstoy's treatise "What is Art?" and Sartre's "What is Literature?" Examples of political art include the paintings of Jacques Louis David, Russian revolutionary cinema, and two polemical novels, William Morris's News from Nowhere and Emile Zola's The Masterpiece. Arthur Danto's After the End of Art and Hans Belting's Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art are used to open up a dialogue on artistic production and intention. The course concludes with an analysis of two films: Exit Through the Gift Shop, a study of the elusive artist Banksy, and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a documentary on the Chinese political dissident and experimental performance artist.

Project fields:
Art History and Criticism

Enduring Questions: Pilot Course Grants

Education Programs

$22,000 (approved)
$22,000 (awarded)

Grant period:
5/1/2014 – 12/31/2015