Material culture is not a single discipline or analytical method. Rather, it is an approach shared by scholars of many disciplines (notably art history, archaeology, anthropology, ethnology, folklore, history, and sociology) who explore how intentionally produced objects, environments, and experiences both shape and reflect the beliefs--values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions--of a particular community or society. This colloquium is an introduction to the problems of understanding, analyzing, and writing about art and material culture. It asks four fundamental questions: (1) What is the nature of art and visual representation? (2) How do we--as observers, consumers, cultural critics, and historians--interpret and make sense of material objects? (3) What issues are at stake in visual representation and interpretation? (4) How does art shape social norms and social values?
Due to the introductory nature of this course, we will survey a variety of objects from a number of American cultural traditions. Each week we will focus on a particular class of objects--retablos, gravestones, quilts, and photograph albums, for example--and learn to look at and analyze those objects. At the same time, we will address a particular approach to the study of material culture or a specific problem of interpretation. As we will learn, each object raises certain issues of production, reception, and historical analysis, and intersects with larger cultural discourses regarding class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, historical change, and cultural contact, among others. By the end of the course, students will have a broad grasp of American material culture and the myriad ways it shapes our social norms and cultural values. In addition, students will have developed skills of visual and historical interpretation and will be prepared for advanced courses in the history of art, folklore, and material culture. Students will work extensively with actual artifacts from local sites and collections; an original research project is required.