Art and Protest in 20th Century America

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English Department, Brooklyn College, CUNY

Instructor: Joseph Entin (

Course Description: This course examines twentieth-century American art that seeks to expose injustice and point the way to a more democratic, egalitarian society. We will explore several artistic and social movements, reading them in the context of the historical periods in which they emerged. We will place particular emphasis on fiction, but will also examine drama, poetry, photography, film, and painting. Much of the art we will be discussing is expressly experimental in its shape and form, and we will be investigating the ways in which formal innovations relate to an artwork's political stance. Students will not only gain a feel for the larger cultural periods (the Depression, the Cold War, the Reagan Era) and social movements (the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement) that shaped American history, but will also learn to write with insight and detail about a variety of artistic forms. We will explore the meaning of "protest" and examine art produced by a wide range of groups, including Greenwich Village bohemians, 1930s documentarians, the Beats, anti-war writers, Chicano/a artists, AIDS activists, and others.

Assignments and Procedures: Twice during the semester, each of you will take responsibility for leading a small group discussion. At the beginning of the class session, we will break into groups of 4-5 students and the day's appointed discussion leaders will facilitate an initial conversation on the assigned reading materials. On the week you are scheduled to lead a small group, you will be responsible for several things. First, you must read the materials very carefully and bring to class 5 copies of a sheet with 5-6 discussion questions about the week's readings. Second, you must identify at least three passages from the readings that address some of the questions you propose for discussion. Third, you must lead the small group conversation, starting off by describing what interested you most about the reading, presenting your questions, and then facilitating the conversation. Finally, you will write a 2-3 page paper on the readings you discussed. This paper will be due one week after the discussion itself.

In addition to these short papers, you will also write two essays. The first will be a 4-5 page essay that analyzes one of the texts we've read, addressing issues and questions we've been considering during the semester. The second paper will be a 7-10 page research paper on an aspect of protest art that interests you. You can write about a work of protest art, such as a novel, play, painting, or film; an artist; a movement or artistic collective, etc. Be creative and choose a topic that really interests you. …


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