Empire and Racial Spectacle
This course begins with the premise that art is purposeful. As a manmade product, art is not innocent. It does not simply reflect the world around us, nor is it ideologically neutral—that art exists solely for the sake of aesthetic beauty. Rather, we begin with an understanding that ideology and artistic representation operate in a cyclical relationship. As much as art can capture a particular moment in time, it is also a site where ideological messages are produced and disseminated. This, in turn, fuels how consumers of art will view the world around them. In other words, art can be used as a tool for both oppression and liberation.
Our class will explore this cyclical relationship with a focus on how racial narratives are produced in order fuel imperial projects with particular emphasis on the U.S. as an imperial power. We will analyze a variety of literary, visual, and popular culture texts that produce “savagery” in order to justify colonization built upon systems of racialized labor. While we will focus largely on U.S. racial spectacle, we will frame our analysis of within the broader context of competing European colonialisms. We stand to learn a great deal about how race is produced and inequality is perpetuated by comparing the ways that racial stratification serves state interests.
To this end, we will begin our inquiry with the following questions:
1. How has discourse of benevolence been used to justify the subjugation of peoples of color?
2. What are the identifying markers of civilization versus barbarism as they relate to religion, capital, and visions of social progress?
3. How does the violence espoused through art attempt to conceal itself? How have other artists pushed back through the creation of counter narratives?
4. Where does this messaging persist in the world around us, and how are we situated in relation to it?
Our course readings will cover a variety of topics that address nation-building, normative/non-normative identity constructions, and racial spectacle. Such topics could include the U.S. minstrel show, P.T. Barnum’s museum, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, World’s Fair ethnographic displays. We will also include a number of modern day topics that demonstrate the persistence of spectacles that reproduce normative values. These topics include reality television programming and racial tourism.