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Spring 2005

ILAS 1397


Professor Steven Mintz
548 Agnes Arnold Hall
Voice: 713-743-3109

Course Description | Calendar | Assignments | Caution | Class Policies

Course Description

Literacy is far more than the ability to read and write. While students are taught to read in grade school, most are not taught to look or listen, skills that are essential for survival in our intensely visual and aural culture. It is possible for students in Texas to go from kindergarten through high school with virtually no instruction in art, film, music, or photography.

Cultural literacy involves a familiarity with the history of American art, film, music, and photography and the changing status of artists, actors, composers, filmmakers, musicians, and photographers in American culture. One of this course’s goals is to introduce you to works and artists that might be considered foundational. Another objective is to show you how to read films, paintings, photographs, and songs as complex texts that shape meanings, values, and attitudes. I want you to understand how artists, composers, and filmmakers use symbols, images, movement, sound, and artistic conventions to convey ideas and influence our emotions.

Far from being mirrors or illustrations of historical realities, films, paintings, and photographs embody complex messages that need to be decoded and deconstructed. Similarly, popular songs are complex texts—collections of signs, symbols, codes, and conventions, that need to be interpreted in light of a particular historical context, the agenda of their creators, their reception, and their relation to other musical works.

The Arts and Popular Historical Consciousness

Art, film, music, and photography play a pivotal role in shaping the way we envision the past. The arts also help construct public myths that define our identity as a people. This course will examine the creation and reception of key artistic works and the images and myths that they have helped propagate.

How have artists represented and misrepresented the African American and Mexican American experience? How have artists conceived of the immigrant experience, the American dream, or the American West at various moments in the past, including the western landscape and images of pioneers, trappers, cowboys, and Native Americans?

Focal Points

This course will consist of three focal points: the visual arts, popular song, and popular film.

Art and Photography: Picturing the Past

Today, we are more aware than ever of the power of visual imagery. Paintings and photographs have enormous power to evoke emotions, construct or deconstruct myths, and suggest fresh ways of viewing the world around us. Historical paintings and photographs, in particular, shape the way we envision the past. Far from being a mirror of reality, art is a lamp. Rather than simply replicating the world around us, art helps to form our perception of the outside world. Art actively shapes meanings, attitudes, and perceptions. This course component will examine:

• Colonial attitudes toward the visual arts;
• Problems of artistic patronage and legitimacy in colonial and nineteenth-century America and the struggle to create distinctively democratic forms of art;
• The artist in colonial and nineteenth-century American society; and
• Representations of American history, the American landscape, the child, slavery and African Americans, and Indians and the West in art.

Film: Screening the Past

In our increasingly visual culture, a growing amount of what we learn about history comes from the movies. Popular films both represent and misrepresent the historical past.

This component of the course will examine how filmmakers manipulate situations, personalities, and timelines and condense highly complex sequences of events in constructing historical films. Specifically, students will learn how to interpret American films that have represented Columbus’s encounter with the New World; Salem witchcraft; Indian and American interactions during the colonial and post-colonial eras; the American Revolution; key historical figures including Thomas Jefferson, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln; and the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Music: Voices Across Time

Popular music sends powerful messages about the lives and values of the people who produced, performed, and consumed it. A close examination of musical practices over time and space could illuminate some of the fundamental issues in American culture and history. This component of the course will examine wow American popular song evolved out of a blending of diverse ethnic and national traditions; and how ballads, campaign songs, minstrel songs, reform songs, religious hymns, spirituals, and work songs sheds light on the evolution of American politics and the economy as well as shifting ideas about gender, race, and religion. We will examine:

Songs as "literature," analyzing the mood, themes, literary tools, and messages imbedded in the text;

Songs as "historical documents" that convey values, beliefs, and events of the time period in which it was written. Students will analyze songs dealing with politics, abolition, labor unions, women’s suffrage, Civil Rights, cultural pride and protest, war, work, migration, and religion.

Songs as "social texts" that represent trends, motivations, and experiences of the people who wrote them or for whom they were written.


Every two weeks, you will have to complete a writing assignment on an aspect of American art, film, music, or photography.

Art: You will examine when a particular work of art was created; locate it in a specific historical, political, and social context; interpret the work’s themes, composition, and symbols; and relate the work to essential historical themes and social developments.

Film: You will explore the relationship between the historical record and its recreation in popular films and examine the role of film in reinforcing historical myths and discuss the problems of balancing dramatic license and historical veracity.

Music: You will write the history and analyzing the themes of individual songs; and interpret the relationship between social change, urbanization, and industrialization and the evolution of American popular music.

Photography: You will “read” photographs in terms of their point of view, place them in their historical context, and analyze the way that particular photographs have shaped American ideas about the past.

Assignments for ILAS 1397:

Caution: Objectionable Materials Warning

Some of the film clips that we will watch during the semester contain scenes of explicit violence, sexual brutality, ethnic and gender stereotyping, nudity, obscenity, adult themes, profanity, and offensive language that might be found objectionable by some. There may be also be ideas or practices endorsed by specific motion pictures that some might consider immoral or amoral. All of these films, however, were already in wide circulation in the culture at large and are, in the instructor’s opinion, essential to understanding American cultural history. If these clips will make you uncomfortable, please do not enroll in the course.


January 22 Learning to Look and Listen

January 29 The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s

February 5 The American Musical

February 12 World War I in Music and Film

February 19 The Roaring ‘20s

February 26 The Great Depression and American Culture, I

March 5 The Great Depression and American Culture, II

March 12 World War II and American Popular Culture

March 19 Spring Break

March 26 Cold War Culture

April 2 The Tumultuous 1960s

April 9 The Vietnam War in Film

April 16 American Popular Culture in the 1970s and 1980s

April 23 American Popular Culture in Our Time

April 30 Final Project Presentations


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