Focusing on the lurid, the coarse — even the monstrous— Arts in American Culture (HUM485/AMST310) explores three facets of US culture and society— the South, Manifest Destiny, and capitalism– in literature, film, visual art, and music.
Unit One, the Dark Romance of Manifest Destiny, examines dime novel renderings of the earliest phase of US Empire, the Mexican-American War, including Ned Buntline’s wildly successful Magdalena, a cross-border love story set against that epic conflict. We’ll analyze two movies as a means of learning about US imperialism and film form: Antonia Bird’s Wendigo myth-inspired slasher Ravenous and Rod Lurie’s Afghan war actioner The Outpost. Finally, we’ll listen to music from and about the era such as “The Ballad of Joaquin Murrieta” and “El Paso.”
Unit Two, Weird South, begins with Harry Crews’s outré account of Bible Belt degeneracy, A Feast of Snakes, an over the top examplar of the Southern Gothic genre. From there we’ll dip into the haunted soundscape of Murder Ballads and Delta Blues, the surrealist photography of Clarence John Laughlin, and grindhouse flicks such as Two Thousand Maniacs! and Mandingo. Examining American Culture War‘s continuing caricaturization of underclass White Southerners as buffoonish, Confederate battle flag-waving rednecks we’ll attempt to come to terms with the ways the popular imagination stories national history and fights contemporary partisan politics.
Unit Three, Vampire Capital, takes William Attaway’s unjustly neglected late-Naturalist novel Blood on the Forge as an occasion to consider an old Lefty conceit, that capitalism feeds on the living. That socio-economic system/logic also unavoidably puts people in motion, a fact dramatized by Attaway’s pulp-proletarian depiction of three brothers from an impoverished rural community swept into the steel mills. Pairing this text with Jacob Lawrence’s painting series The Great Migration will afford us the chance to discuss the cultural movement of Modernism and industrial capitalism‘s racial character. Linking this prior moment of economic development to the present, we’ll think about the cultural consequences of the Uberization of work and chronic precarity.