Vision and Justice: The Art of Race and American Citizenship (Gen Ed 1022)



How does culture—from images of racial violence to Confederate monuments—determine who counts and who belongs in the United States?


Aesthetics & Culture icon with textHistories, Societies, Individuals icon with text

Sarah Lewis

How has visual representation—from videos and photographs to sculptures and memorials—both limited and liberated our definition of American citizenship and belonging? Art is often considered a respite from life or a reflection of the times, but this class examines how art actually has created the times in which we live.  

The distribution of rights is central to justice. The rights of citizenship are many, but central to them all is the right, even the responsibility, to engage and participate in collective society—to be recognized as a member of the body politic. The course will wrestle with the question of how the foundational right of representation in a democracy, the right to be recognized justly, is indelibly tied to the work of visual representation in the public realm. 

Social media has changed how we ingest images. Racially motivated injustices, protests, collective grief and glory now play out in photos and videos with a speed unimaginable even a few decades ago, allowing—and compelling—us to call upon skills of visual literacy to remain engaged global citizens every day. But images have always played an important part in civic life. Over the course of the semester, we will consider visual representation as a form of “civic evidence,” “civic critique,” and “civic engagement” in American history. Together we will consider the role of art and aesthetics for the invention of race, the creation of and destabilization of U.S. segregation, narratives supporting and critiquing Native American “removal,” Japanese Internment, immigration, New Negro Movement, and the long Civil Rights movement. 

When has art served as propaganda? How did nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans frame arguments over racism with images—literally? How have images played a role in shaping how we envision the borders between the U.S. and other nations? By the end of the course you should be able to argue how images have persuasive efficacy in the context of citizenship, critique the comments posted under images online, and problematize the foundational right of representation in a democracy like the United States. 

We are fortunate to have invaluable holdings at the Harvard Art Museums and at the Peabody Museum and via Cooper Gallery exhibitions that vividly showcase this contested relationship between art, justice, race, and culture in American life. Lectures will incorporate material from these holdings and sections will meet at these locations to facilitate object-based study. This course will also include guest lectures from artists and architects. 

Register for Gen Ed 1022