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ENGL 102 - Wayland

Essay 2: Visual Art

English 102   Essay 2

Rough Draft due Monday March 10 (5-8 pages + Works Cited page & copies of images)

Final Draft due Monday March 17 (6-8 pages + Works Cited page & copies of images)

For this assignment you will write an argumentative essay about paintings or photographs of your choice, including ideas from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Susan Sontag's On Photography, or Simon Schama’s The Power of Art to help you formulate your argument. You will write about two or more images. The comparison of your images will be an essential part of the assignment.

Research images that you find interesting. You may compare of multiple works by the same artist, or compare works by different artists, but there does need to be a strong reason to compare the images.

For either option, your essay will incorporate: a critical argument, which you should formulate in relationship to Sontag/Berger/Schama's ideas; background research on the images (when/where/why they were made);  visual analysis of the images, in which you discuss their formal properties.

Sontag/Berger/Schama do not need to play a dominant role in your argument or analysis. Think of your response to Sontag/Berger/Schama as just one part of your essay.

In addition to On Photography, Ways of Seeing or The Power of Art, your essay will have a minimum of four secondary sources. You may use online sources, but they need to be high quality, reputable sources on your topic. Try to use the library’s resources, such as the ProQuest database, which will help you locate journal and magazine articles on your subject, or electronic reference materials such as Britannica Online. Wikipedia is not a good source for your essay, because it is not reliable enough for academic work.

The English 102 LibGuide will direct you towards great print resources in Haselwood Library. Some of your best options for secondary sources are reference books on art or photography (particularly the Grove Dictionary of Art and the Encyclopedia of World Art) or books on your specific artist, artwork, or time period. A reference librarian in the library will also be able to help you find these sources.

Here are some more suggestions for getting started. Use these sites to help you find an artwork you’re interested in learning and writing about:

Course LibGuide: http://libguides.olympic.edu/Engl102wayland
Google Art Project: googleartproject.com
Artcyclopedia: http://www.artcyclopedia.com

Museums with major collections:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art http://www.metmuseum.org/works_of_art/collection_database/
The Louvre http://www.louvre.fr/llv/commun/home_flash.jsp?bmLocale=en
The Art Institute of Chicago http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/index.html
The National Gallery of Art http://www.nga.gov/
The Getty http://www.getty.edu/art/
Museum of Modern Art http://moma.org/

Photography: A list of 100 great photographers (with some links)


The questions below are suggestions to help you think about ways to connect to Berger in the essay—it is not necessary to answer all the questions below. Feel free to pursue other questions that interest you as you examine the art in your research, as long as you can establish a firm connection between your inquiry and the terms and arguments in Berger and/or other essays your read about your subject(s). It would be appropriate to focus on only one or two of the sub-questions below.

1) Mystification. When Berger uses this term, he insists that some interpretations represent “mystification” while others illuminate “the only confrontation which matters.” According to Berger, what constitutes “mystification,” and what is its contrary? What does Berger try to expose or describe in his own criticism?

When you turn towards the work of your artist, take a sampling of the criticism that surrounds the artist’s work. Can you find examples that would fall under Berger’s definition of “mystification”? How do they mystify, and why?

What does de-mystifying criticism look like? Do you see criticism that addresses a “confrontation that matters”?

2) Reproduction. There are many ways to approach this question, so do not be limited to the questions here—and do not feel the need to answer every question!

One possibility is to study the reproductions that you find on the internet, especially the Google Art Project. Explore the ways that these reproductions differ from the original (even if you haven’t seen the original in person, you can probably get a sense of how being in front of an actual, physical painting is different from staring at a digital image). How are they presented—what is their context, as opposed to the context of the original? Bear in mind that “context” here can be a historical, visual, social, or interpretive context.

Refer to the examples that Berger gives of a painting’s meaning being changed by reproduction. How do the reproductions that you see differ from the original—and how can you obtain information about what the original itself looks like? Can you observe other ways that meaning is altered through the process of reproduction? Be sure to clearly define the “meaning” that is altered (consider the example from Berger where an allegorical painting of Venus becomes a portrait of a young girl when her head is cropped out of the larger canvas).

Can you find an account of how the original was viewed before the advent of modern reproduction? Was it a religious/sacred object? Was it seen only by a specific segment of society?

Compare multiple reproductions of the same artwork. What differences do you see? How does your sense of the painting change depending on the kind of reproduction you are seeing? Consider comparing images online with ones reproduced on paper, such as a book.

You might also compare the details you can see in an image on Google Art Project with another reproduction. Do you think that the details in the Google reproductions mean that we are seeing the paintings in a new way? Do we get closer to the experience of seeing the original when we view images this way? What aspects of the original are still lost to us—what remains unique about the original painting?

3) History.What is Berger’s argument about the connection between history and art? How do perspectives on art reveal historical realities? What is the historical or political relationship between the modern viewer and the art of the past that you chose? In what ways are you connected to the historical moment of the painting when you look at it?

4) Gender. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (47).

Work with Berger’s arguments in Chapter 3 of Ways of Seeing. You can examine his points about nudes, but you do not need to—any painting that has women or men in it will work for this option. You will want to explore, especially, how the representation of men and women differs in painting, and work on an argument that explains these differences.

Note how important context is for this option: when Berger informs us that Nell Gwynne, the nude on pg. 52, was Charles the Second’s mistress, that is important for our understanding of the painting. For any artwork you write about, find out as much as you can about: who painted it, who is in it, and for whom it was painted (i.e., who was meant to see it). After that, you can reflect on how we see it today.