How is the identity of America represented in the arts? Is it a more accurate and diverse reflection than you would find in a textbook? How has the identity of America changed throughout history? All of these questions and more will be explored in this course as you learn how to discuss and interpret paintings from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Located in Bentonville, Arkansas, Crystal Bridges has over five centuries of American Art, from early portrayals of Native Americans to the contemporary art of today. Each of these artworks is a primary source and provides a unique perspective on American history and identity that you cannot find in a history textbook. You will learn how to discuss, interpret, and critique in this class while also learning about careers in museums. The final project will culminate in a student-created exhibition.
Unit 1: The Language of Art History
Session 1: LOOKING AT ART TO LEARN ABOUT HISTORY AND IDENTITY
Session 1 introduces formal analysis and examines the contemporary artwork of Nick Cave and Kerry James Marshall.
Session 2: CAN WE SEE NATIONAL IDENTITY IN A PORTRAIT?
In Session 1, we looked at art that asks viewers to rethink the impact of tumultuous events on individuals and communities. The artworks in Session 2 celebrate the indomitable spirit and optimism that are hallmarks of American culture. In the first work, the artist captures a unique moment during World War II: when women were called on to work in factories to fill the vacancies left by men who had joined the armed forces. In the second work, the artist captures the likeness of a civil rights leader while hinting at the identity of a national movement.
You, too, will make portraits! Your assignment Session 2 is to capture images of yourself that express your personal identity.
Session 3: CAN AMERICAN IDENTITY BE FOUND IN LANDSCAPE PAINTINGS?
In Session 3, we look at how images of landscapes from the 19th century convey ideas about American identity that continue to resonate today. You examine two paintings of American landscapes, one urban and one rural, and explore resources that explain the historical and cultural context of each painting. You consider how these landscapes fit into the notion of American identity and what aspects of the landscape in your neighborhood represent American identity. You share your thoughts and ideas with your classmates.
Unit 2: Shaping Individual Identities
Session 4: HOW DOES DEMOCRACY IMPACT AMERICAN IDENTITY?
In Session 4, you consider the long-lasting effects of 19th-century government policies on race, and controversies about how the government values money, and see how two artists of that period responded to these issues.
Session 5: DOES CLASS IMPACT HOW PEOPLE EXPERIENCE BEING AMERICAN?
In Session 5, you look at the role of class in people’s experience of being American. You explore the art movement associated with American Realism, and consider how the style of a particular painting reflects revolutionary changes in American society and identity. You learn about the essential role that editing plays in the curatorial process as you begin editing your photo collections from Unit 1.
Session 6: HOW DOES FAMILY IMPACT AMERICAN IDENTITY?
Family could be the most influential factor that influences individual identity and therefore has a huge impact on national identity as well. Who does your family encourage you to be when you grow up? More generally, how have the circumstances of family lives throughout the history of the United States formed our collective identity? In Session 6, we look at two artworks that center on family. One explores the impact of race on families in the 18th century, and another explores the changing expectations of Black families in the early 20th century.
Session 7: HOW DO RACE AND ETHNICITY IMPACT AMERICAN IDENTITY?
Race and ethnicity are classifications of identity that impact how people see themselves and others. We began the course with a TED Talk from Titus Kaphar that focused on rewriting art history to include people who were marginalized because of their race. Here, we will look at two other groups of people who have been marginalized in American society because of their racial and ethnic identities, and consider how heritage impacts identity.
Unit 3: Designing an Exhibit About National Identity
Session 8: Designing an Exhibit About National Identity
In Session 8, we look at the art of Andy Warhol, an artist who was obsessed with celebrities and intrigued by the idea of fame. We also examine the work of Florine Stettheimer, an artist and socialite who was friends with many famous people in New York City—completely different famous people than those who were friends with the Beardens, even though they were contemporaries! Stettheimer’s work had significance for her because she painted pictures of her friends—but since the friends she painted were world-class writers and artists, this made her work significant to a wider audience as well.
Session 9: HOW DO AMERICAN RELATIONSHIPS WITH NATURE DEFINE OUR IDENTITY?
In this session, we look at two artists whose works attempt to catalog the creatures who inhabit the natural world: John James Audubon, a naturalist of the 19th century, and Walton Ford, a contemporary artist. Their works have some similarities in terms of subject matter and spectacular renderings, but the historical context of their work is quite different. Comparing them offers insight into a few of the ways that American identity is shaped by our relationship to the environment.
Session 10: HAS THE GROWTH OF AMERICAN CITIES DEFINED US AS A PEOPLE?
In this session, you explore the artistic movement of American Impressionism, revisit Urban Realism, and investigate the crowding of diversified groups in immigrant neighborhoods in New York City. You also continue to put together everything you’ve learned about curation, art, history, and identity as you work on your final project.
Session 11: DOES ONGOING IMMIGRATION CAUSE AMERICANS TO REDEFINE OUR SHARED IDENTITY?
This session explores the United States as a nation of immigrants, and how immigrant artists have impacted the growth and development of American identity. You will examine the portraits of a Jewish colonial family and consider how integrating with early American culture impacted their lives. The influence of immigrant artists, including Alfred Stieglitz, Janet Sobel, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Elie Nadelman, are also considered.
You will also explore title walls, and find out how exhibit titles are a pivotal consideration for curators. Of course, this all contributes to your American Identity Project. Let’s get started!
Unit 4: Lights, Camera, Action!
Session 12: DOES AMERICAN IDENTITY CHANGE BASED ON WHERE WE LIVE?
In Session 12, you explore the painting style of American Regionalism—a naturalistic and idiosyncratic approach to painting from the early to mid-20th century that depicts the life and land of rural America. In addition to expressing a realistic view of the rural terrain, Regionalist artists seek to depict a “truly American” perspective; their work encourages a departure from urban city living and a return to our agricultural countryside roots. You also begin to put the finishing touches on your American identity project.
Session 13: HOW HAVE PROTESTS SHAPED AMERICAN IDENTITY?
In this session, you look at images that formed a silent protest against the abject poverty (including fear of starvation) that many families faced during the Great Depression. You will also consider a work that questions the role of government in the Vietnam War. Using what you’ve learned about how museums publicize their collections, you also make an advertisement for your American Identity Exhibit.
Session 14: HOW MUCH DO GENDER ROLES DEFINE AMERICAN LIFE?
Does your appearance automatically cause people to make assumptions about your identity? Have you ever been stared at because of your behavior—or for deciding to wear something strange? American society, like all societies, has unwritten expectations for the roles that are appropriate for certain people, based on factors such as age and gender. The nature of these roles, and the ways in which society reacts to people who do not fit into its expectations, says a lot about American identity. In this session, you learn about our society’s expectations and norms and how artists have reacted to those expectations and norms in their work. You also submit your final project.
Session 15: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE AN AMERICAN?
What does it mean to be American? What is our national identity? How has our present been shaped by events from the past? And how does American art reflect and affect our social, cultural, and political history? You explored art, history, politics, culture, and even some science as you thought about how to answer these questions—and now you will share your visual and textual answer. In this session, final thoughts on these themes are explored through the work of Jamie Wyeth, Vanessa German, Carrie Mae Weems, and Alfredo Ramos Martinez. Perhaps these artists offer insight into how American art and identity will develop in the future. You also have an opportunity to share your final words on personal and national identity through the exploration of American art.