HISTART 677-001

Studies in American Art: Realism and Realities in American Art and Literature

270 Tappan
Tuesday 1:00-4:00pm
3 Credit Seminar
Meets with AMCULT 601.004

An informed understanding of how representation works is a building-block of artistic and cultural analysis. This seminar interrogates the idea of "American Realism" by examining both realism and representation as rhetorical, power-laden practices. Ranging across fiction, documentary, and art, we will test the insights of literary and photographic theories of realist representation (Barthes, Lukacs, Tagg, etc) on works that have made competing claims to represent American realities. We will analyze different strategies of realism, representation, authenticity, and "truth." Along the way we will read some defining literary icons (including Twain, Crane, Agee, and works of "proletarian fiction") and reinterpret the art of slave narratives and Sojourner Truth's self-representations, Eakins, Riis, photographic and painterly depictions of Native Americans, the American Trompe-l'oeil painters. Moving into the 20th century we will examine concepts of authenticity in the collecting of Native American art, the Brecht-Lukacs debate over the nature of modernist realism, take up the question of documentary realism in photography and writing of the 1930s, and conclude with a discussion of the reception of Pop Art as "the new American realism." Students will then apply the insights gained through readings and class discussion to research projects in their own fields of interest.

Intended Audience: Students from Comparative Literature, English, Screen Arts, History, Art, and Architecture – in addition to History of Art and American Culture – are encouraged to participate.


  • Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
  • Stephen Crane, Maggie, A girl of the Streets (Norton Critical Edition)
  • Michael Leja, Looking Askance
  • Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives
  • Walker Evans and James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
  • ... plus online readings.