The Artist as an Agent of History. From Symbolic Politics to Visual Activism

Course Description: 


In turbulent times, artists have had various social roles and commitments to history, politics and ideology. These roles and commitments went far beyond the notion of their traditionally conceived role as visual entertainers, and as providers of pure aesthetic pleasure. 

The course will focus on modern, 19th and 20th century European history (with an emphasis on Central and Eastern Europe) through the lens of art. Participants will gain an understanding of how history is represented or invoked by state-sponsored official art, manifested in monuments and memorials in public space or by artefacts displayed in national museums in the service of a canonized historical narrative. In parallel, we will explore how this same history is interpreted or uncovered by socially committed, contemporary artists.

The debated issue of cultivating, manipulating and erasing collective memory by changing place names, or by raising and demolishing monuments, will be scrutinized in connection to their historical roots. Radical and provocative artists’ interventions as well as the healing power of art and its ability to empower invisible or marginalized actors throughout history will also be part of the course. The trauma of the Holocaust, Socialism, and the recent process of re-nationalization of post-Socialist countries will be explored via close reading of artworks, and critical analyses of videos. The visual nature of ideologies, including Socialism and Nationalism, will be unveiled using both bottom-up and top-down perspectives. Thus, not just state-nationalism, but also everyday “private nationalism” will be considered. The popular genre of our days, historical reenactment as well as artistic reenactment will be analyzed and compared.

The course will provide an interdisciplinary approach, combining the methods and perspectives of history, art history, visual, cultural and gender studies, as well as memory and nationalism studies, in order to provide a deep and nuanced understanding of specific historical phenomena, and how they operate behind the dry facts and dates.


Learning Outcomes: 

In a globalized and interconnected world, images and visuality have immense power, making an understanding of how they work is vital. The course will provide students with a vocabulary of visual language to help them interpret images that address controversial historical and political issues. They will move far beyond the clichéd view of treating art as illustration of history, and will gain insights from complex art works that take them behind the façade of history. After the course they will no longer take artistic statements at face value either, and their 21st century understanding of history will not be contradicted by a 19th century expectation towards art.

As a benefit of the close readings of artefacts, videos and group discussions, students may be expected to make a shift from opinionated thinking towards analytical thinking, even with respect to the most puzzling and complicated artworks and images. Participants of the course will see cutting edge art and video pieces, providing close encounters with the artmaking process and creative thinking. Further, students will have the chance to meet artists face-to-face, providing a more personal backdrop to the works that are analyzed in the course.

In sum, this course will provide students with a rich understanding of the role of visual art and artists in constructing historical narratives and (re)creating historical interpretations. Students will be able to understand and critically analyze artworks, and will learn to see them as manifestations of conflicting and competing societal interpretations of our collective past and present.


Course Requirement

Students are expected to attend all lectures and seminars, read the assigned readings and  actively participate in class discussions. The requirements of the course and the breakdown of grading are as follows:


  • Seminar participation (20%), based on both the quantity and quality of the students’ contributions and involvement during discussions of readings and visual materials.
  • 2 short quizzes about the key notions and concepts introduced in the course (20%)
  • Interview (conducted individually or in group work) with an artist whose artworks are discussed in the course (20%);
  • Final written essay and its short verbal class presentation (40%): A final essay of approx. 4,000 words (including notes) will be due at the end of the course.

 Class Attendance

 Regular attendance is mandatory in all classes. A student who misses more than two units (two 100 minute sessions) in any 2 or 4 credit class without a verified reason that is beyond the student's control must submit an 8-10 page paper assigned by the Professor, which as a rule should cover the material in the missed class. The paper is due no later than 3 weeks after the missed class.