Visual Culture in the History Classroom

May 20th, 2008 § 3 comments

Is a picture truly worth a thousand words? How does an image (or an opening line) transcend the cliché? A more important question for the History classroom may be just the opposite — how do we find enough to say? Often the image seems to be taken as a simple illustration or, in an even more problematic fashion, as a pure fact on a page.

These concerns have inspired an extended unit on China’s revolutionary posters for one of my upper division seminars as well as a presentation at the recent UMW Faculty Academy. (Many thanks to all for the insightful comments offered at the session.) The seminar course is a broad one that explores the notion of cultural history in the context of the history of the People’s Republic of China. In addition to reading texts related to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), particularly selections from Evans and Donald’s Picturing Power(1999), and exploring the oral accounts offered in the documentary Morning Sun (Longbow Group, 2003), our class also engages in a direct analysis of revolutionary posters. Drawing on the excellent collection presented online by scholars Stefan Landsberger and Marien van der Heijden, our working group is set with a task that offers several basic goals:

  • – introduce the value of a close read of an image…
  • – explore the complexities of meaning an image presents…
  • – work towards a shared construction of analysis…

The emphasis here lies upon a collective exploration of the dynamic of the brainstorm and the value of free-thought insight. The aim is to make the nuts and bolts of early constructions of analysis visible… literally.

With this latter aim in mind, I incorporated a new digital tool (wonderfully introduced by Bryan Alexander at a recent ELI workshop) called VoiceThread. As an open, web-based tool that allows individuals to add voice and text to a selection of images, VoiceThread proves quite useful in encouraging attention to a deeper level of detail within the frame. It also invites analysis across frames, as a device that allows for an assembly of images in a moving sequence. Commentary, observation, and narration all flow around the images as the images are moved in lines of juxtaposition and association, just as set forth by one of our working groups:

As a class plan, our workshop offered three starter VoiceThreads for students working in groups of 4-5 people. Each VoiceThread set forth a first image, chosen by myself, with participants invited to find and add their own, creating that very procession of images amidst their own commentary. In one case, students jumped from an image of domestic scene in a revolutionary 1954 poster to images from genres that seemed, at first, quite distant:

While the commentary was left to the images themselves for these two latter scenes, their assembly presents a reading that invites exploration not only of the unfamiliar (in the form of the Chinese images, Chairman Mao as domestic god?), but also a return gaze back at that which is better known… A very good start.

A question still follows – how best to bring the analysis to the next level?

Further historical contextualization of the images is one necessary task, including detail (where available) on their composers, production and dissemination. A second step would also be to incorporate further readings re: visual culture as a follow-up that helps to weave the process of analysis more closely with analytical commentary and methodological insight. The exploration of image and text (and back to image) invokes everything from the classic work of John Berger to the recent analysis of historical photographs, text, and vision offered by filmmaker Errol Morris in his blog for the New York Times.

And the third step? Suggestions welcome…

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§ 3 Responses to Visual Culture in the History Classroom"

  • Gardner says:

    Well! First swing in the blogosphere and you’re hitting homers already. 🙂 Welcome. How cool to be able to perch on your shoulder (I promise not to slip, and also to make myself small and near-weightless) and see the process of your own discovery over time. Colleagues despite my defection to the West! (cue rimshot)

    I’m looking forward to listening to the VoiceThreads. I saw this technology at the ELI Annual Meeting and found it very interesting indeed. My only concerns were about the audio quality, but the relatively poor quality may have been for any number of down- or up-stream reasons. But what a great analytical tool … and of course I’m fully inspired by words like these:

    “The emphasis here lies upon a collective exploration of the dynamic of the brainstorm and the value of free-thought insight. The aim is to make the nuts and bolts of early constructions of analysis visible… literally.”

    If it’s not presumptuous to say so, we are truly kindred spirits in this regard.

    Now for some thoughts in answer to your final question. Berger is essential, indeed. Glad to see Morris in there: his blogging is so smart and powerful (and refreshingly clear-minded on the topic), and you’ll find this same analytical power in his movies as well, though it’s more implicit there. I anticipate that “Standard Operating Procedure” is more explicit along these lines. If only I didn’t have to move to Cambridge or L.A. to see it…. You might find some cool stuff on his website: Be sure to tell your students that Errol was a Distinguished Scholar in Residence here in 1997 and credits his stay with us as helping him to solve some editing problems in “Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control.” We have strong ties here to Morris and his work.

    One further thought: do you know Robert Hughes’ “The Shock of the New”? He’s got some very interesting thoughts in there, as I recall, regarding Russian Revolution-era posters as well as Weimar Germany political art (mostly satire, as you can imagine). Hughes writes like an angel and I find him extremely perceptive. He draws on other arts as well, which is helpful in getting to broader understandings of specifically visual means of communication. I also give him credit for leading me to Paul Fussell’s classic “The Great War and Modern Memory.” I wish those “Shock of the New” PBS broadcasts from the 80’s were more generally available. (Just searched–Ambrose Video has them! Hurray! and only 99.00 for all eight episodes! Wow: .) They really were transformative for me. But the book is also wonderful, widely available, and has its own claim to classic status.

    Enough from me for now, but again: welcome!

  • Adam says:

    One of the interesting questions for the cultural history of these pieces is who painted them and how the painters conceived of what they were doing. In much the same way that national prison and military systems often bring together elements of dissent rather than controlling them, forced mass involvement in ideological art might serve as a spark for non-politicized artistic creation. The contemporary artist He Qi is one of what I assume is a large set of young art students who were forced to paint these sorts of images by day. He describes in one of his prefaces how he went home at night and practiced painting emotive human figures. He now paints Christian scenes with Chinese and international post-colonial elements ( Given the recent awareness of the impact of the Cultural Revolution on literary activities, I wonder what can be said for the influence of political public art on private, self-expressive art?

  • sf says:

    @Gardner – I’m ringing in here after what has turned into an extended blog sabbatical (ah, the challenges of juggling too many projects at once! Esp. new ones…) Many thanks for sharing your thoughts here – as always, your discussion wonderfully moves the project along to a new level. I’m only marginally familiar with Hughes’ work and the series, but look forward to digging into it. It seems particularly relevant, perhaps, for the reinvention of a Maoist visual culture as post-reform, late-capitalist kitsch as well, no? Meanwhile, there is a lively scene, as always, rolling for art back in Beijing today that makes great material for the sociologist as well as the art critic or historian. Art, image, media… market. The commentary is an interesting one, particularly amidst other kinds of global shifts these days…

    BTW, I hadn’t heard of Errol Morris’ stay at UMW. That’s great to hear… we’ll definitely have to get him back one of these days for a visit.

    @Adam – Thanks for raising the issue of the artist here — it’s a great reminder and an important part of the classroom discussion on this topic, particularly as a means to complicate what often seems to many viewers to be merely a simple, two-dimensional image: “propaganda.” Indeed, it’s q. interesting to explore the ways in which the political/public and the private, self-expressive coincide within that same frame itself… this makes a nice angle for explorations of cinema as well as the still (or not so still) frame of the poster or painting. Many thanks for sharing the He Qi link!

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