Syllabus: Cultural Criticism in the Digital Age—Historical & Contemporary Perspectives, Winter 2018

Winter 2018

Cultural Criticism in the Digital Age: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Ellen Willis, ca. 1968.

…A statue has never been set up in honor of a critic! — Jean Sibelius

Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial. — Bob Dylan

Instructor

Dr. Michael J. Kramer

History & American Studies

email: mjk@northwestern.edu

Office hours: Th, 2-3pm or by appointment

Office location: 212 Harris Hall

Course Number

2018WI_HISTORY_393-0_SEC26_AND_HUM_325-6_SEC21_AND_AMER_ST_310-0_SEC24

Time

Winter Quarter 2018

Tu Th 3:30-4:50, with a few meetings to 6pm to allow for travel time when we meet at MCA.

Location

555 Clark B01 and various museums in Evanston and Chicago (The Museum of Contemporary Art is located across the street from the downtown Northwestern campus and is easily accessible by the Intercampus bus shuttle—free with your Wildcard. The schedule for the shuttle is available at http://www.northwestern.edu/transportation-parking/shuttles/routes/intercampus.html; the Block Museum is located on the Evanston campus at http://www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.)

Description

What is the history of cultural criticism in the United States? Where is it headed? How do its past and future relate to each other? This methods seminar for 15 students combines historical examination with fieldwork at contemporary art museums and performance spaces. Students read extensively in the history of cultural criticism, meet with museum and arts professionals, and experiment with new, digital modes of critical writing. Fulfills Distros 4 (Historical Studies) or 6 (Literature and Fine Arts).

Course Objectives

  • Deepen understanding of the history of arts and cultural criticism in the US.
  • Sharpen critical and interpretive skills as active thinkers and writers.
  • Sharpen historical research skills (wielding primary sources to produce convincing, fresh, compelling interpretations in conversation with past historical arguments, evidence, and methods).
  • Improve digital literacy and multimedia skills.
  • Learn about what museum professionals and cultural critics do.
Without You I’m Nothing: Art and Its Audience, exhibition at MCA Chicago, 2010-2011. Photo: Nathan Keay.

MaterialsAvailable at bookstore, through online booksellers, or at NU Library reserve desk.

  • Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music: Sixth Edition. New York: Plume, 2015. ISBN-13: 9780142181584
  • Powers, Ann, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music. New York: Dey Street Books, 2017. ISBN-13: 9780062463692
  • Seligman, Craig. Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2005. ISBN-13: 9781582433127
  • The New Yorker magazine “back of the book” reviews section
  • Chicago Reader arts sections
  • New City arts sections
  • 3rd Coast Review
  • Time Out Chicago
  • Additional articles, films, and websites on course website and/or on reserve at NU Library, see our Canvas course page.
At the San Francisco Museum of Art, 1963.

Schedule:

Week 1

 

Tu 01/09

555 Clark B01

A Critic’s Job of Work: Introduction 01

Required Materials:

·      Daniel Mendelsohn, “A Critic’s Manifesto,” New Yorker, 28 August 2012

·      Dwight Garner, “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical,” New York Times, 15 August 2012

·      Barry Schwabsky, “A Critic’s Job of Work,” The Nation, 9 March 2016

·      Edward Mendelson, “What Is the Critic’s Job?,” New York Review of Books, 28 September 2017

·      The 50 Year Argument, dir. Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi (2014)

Th 01/11

555 Clark B01

Critical Digital: Introduction 02

Required Materials:

·      AO Scott, “Everybody’s a Critic. And That’s How It Should Be.,” New York Times 30 January 2016

·      Anya Ventura, “Slow Criticism: Art in the Age of Post-Judgement,” Temporary Art Review, 15 February 2016

·      Various Authors, “Do We Need Professional Critics?,” New York Times, 7 October 2012

·      “Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age” Talks and other materials, Walker Arts Museum, 28-30 May 2015

·      Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 217-252

·      This week’s New Yorker back of the book, course reserves or subscribe

·      Chicago Reader arts section

·      Third Coast Review

·      Subscribe to daily or weekly ArtsJournal email

·      Join listserv mailing lists for Block MuseumMCAArt Institute of ChicagoArts Club of Chicago, and any other Chicago venues of interest (Links Hall, Constellation, Elastic Arts, Dance Center of Columbia College, Siskel Film Center, Facets, Steppenwolf, arts at other area universities, museums, concert venues, theaters)

Week 2  
Tu 01/16

555 Clark B01

Historically Critical 01

Required Materials:

·      Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Essays in Criticism (originally published in The National Review, 1864; reprinted, Macmillan & Co., 1865), 9-36

·      Walter Pater, “Preface” and “Conclusion,” The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, ed. Donald L. Hill (1893; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), xix-xxv, 186-190

·      Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Discussing Everything,” in Intentions (London: Methuen and Co., 1913), 95-220

·      TS Eliot, “The Perfect Critic,” The Sacred Wood (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921), 1-14

·      HL Mencken, “Footnote on Criticism,” in Prejudices, Third Series (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922), 84-105

·      RP Blackmur, “A Critic’s Job of Work” in Language As Gesture: Essays in Poetry (1933; reprinted, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952), 372-399

Th 01/18

555 Clark B01

Historically Critical 02

Required Materials:

·      Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation (1966)

·      Manny Farber, “White Elephant Art and Termite Art” (1962), in Negative Space (New York: Da Capo, 1998), 134-44

·      Regarding Susan Sontag (documentary film, 2014)

·      New Yorker back of the book

·      Chicago Reader, NewCity, Third Coast Review

·      ArtsJournal email

Fr 01/19 Assignment 01: Introduction

Introductory Essay, 500-1000 words. Compile a list of quotations from our readings/viewings of whenever any writer/speaker attempts to define what cultural criticism is what a cultural critic does. Make a list of these. Develop a 500-1000-word exploration of 1-3 of the quotations. What do you make of each one? How do they compare to each other: similarities, differences, larger implications from those contrasts or intersections? Are there any “keywords” you notice among your quotations? Can you tell us more about why these are “keywords”? Remember to select Assignment category, add a featured image, and add any relevant tags. Post on WordPress website.

Week 3
Mo 01/22 Assignment Response 01

Respond to at least two other students in the comments section of their WordPress post.

Tu 01/23

555 Clark B01

 

What Is Culture, Anyway? 01

Required Materials:

·      Raymond Williams, “Criticism” and “Culture,” in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976), 84-93

·      “Culture” in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, eds. Bennett, Grossberg and Morris (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005), 63-69

·      Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular'” in People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. Raphael Samuel (Boston: Routledge, 1981): 227-39

·      bell hooks, “Cultural Criticism and Transformation” Video, 1997

Th 01/25

555 Clark B01

What Is Culture, Anyway? 02

Required Material:

·      George Santayana, “The Genteel Tradition Defined,” from Critics of Culture: Literature and Society in the Early Twentieth Century, ed. Alan Trachtenberg (New York: Wiley, 1976), 14-35

·      Van Wyck Brooks, “On Creating a Useable Past,” The Dial 64 (11 April 1918), reprinted in Critics of Culture: Literature and Society in the Early Twentieth Century, ed. Alan Trachtenberg (New York: Wiley, 1976), 165-180

·      Jonathan Letham, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” Harper’s Magazine (February 2007)

·      New Yorker back of the book

·      Chicago Reader, NewCity, Third Coast Review

·      ArtsJournal email

Week 4

 

Tu 01/30

555 Clark B01

 

Museum Exhibit: William Blake and the Age of Aquarius

Required Materials:

·      Stephen F. Eisenman, “William Blake and the Age of Aquarius,” in William Blake and the Age of Aquarius (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 1-78

Th 02/01

Block Museum

 

Museum Professional: Susy Bielak

Guest:

·      Susy Bielak, Associate Director of Engagement/Curator of Public Practice, Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University

Fr 02/02 Assignment 02: Museum

In 750-1000 words, respond to one artwork in the Block Museum exhibitions. Your short critical essay should include a “close reading” (detailed description) of whatever it is you are examining and then should compellingly link detailed description to interpretation. Why does this artwork matter? What is it “saying”? What is its significance? Try to develop an effective opening “hook” and develop a clear, cogent, and exciting organizational flow for your essay. End strongly. Consider potential multimedia elements (photographs, annotations, video, experiments with design of text, hyperlinks, timelines, etc.). Refer to the rubric for additional information and consider examples and models from our materials as you develop your short critical essay. Remember to select Assignment category, add a featured image, and add any relevant tags. Post on WordPress.

Week 5
Mo 02/05 Assignment Response 02

Respond to at least two other students in the comments section of their WordPress post.

Tu 02/06

555 Clark B01

 

Film: Kael

Required Materials:

·      Nathan Heller, “Five Classic Pauline Kael Reviews,” New Yorker, 14 October 2011 (read the five reviews too!)

·      Raymond Haberski, Jr., “Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael and the Duel for the Soul of Criticism,” in It’s Only a Movie!: Films and Critics in American Culture (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 122-143

Th 02/08

555 Clark B01

 

Kael and Sontag

Required Material:

·      Craig Seligman, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2005)

·      New Yorker back of the book

·      Chicago Reader, NewCity, Third Coast Review

·      ArtsJournal email

Week 6
Tu 02/13

555 Clark B01

 

Music 01: Greil Marcus, Mystery Train

Required Material:

·      Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music: Sixth Edition (New York: Plume, 2015), xi-89

Th 02/15

555 Clark B01

 

Music 02: Greil Marcus, Mystery Train

·      Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music: Sixth Edition (New York: Plume, 2015), 113-168

·      New Yorker back of the book

·      Pitchfork

·      Chicago Reader, NewCity, Third Coast Review

·      ArtsJournal email

Fr 02/16 Assignment 03: Music or Film Review

In 750-1000 words, write a review of one song, album, or film. You may review a film or song or album that Kael or Marcus discuss, or choose your own to review. Draw upon ideas you gleaned from Kael and/or Marcus for your review: what that you learned from their cultural criticism translates to your own review? Your short critical essay should include a “close reading” (detailed description) of whatever it is you are examining and then should compellingly link detailed description to interpretation. Why does this artwork matter? What is it “saying”? What is its significance? Try to develop an effective opening “hook” and develop a clear, cogent, and exciting organizational flow for your essay. End strongly. Consider potential multimedia elements (photographs, annotations, video, experiments with design of text, hyperlinks, timelines, etc.). Refer to the rubric for additional information and consider examples and models from our materials as you develop your short critical essay. Remember to select Assignment category, add a featured image, and add any relevant tags. Post on WordPress.

Week 7
Mo 02/19 Assignment Response 03
Tu 02/20

555 Clark B01

 

Music 03: Ann Powers, Good Booty

Required Material:

·      Ann Powers, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music (New York: Dey Street Books, 2017), xi-154

·      Ellen Willis, “Dylan,” Cheetah (1967) and “Janis,” Rolling Stone (1970), in Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, ed. Nona Willis Aronowitz (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 1-20, 125-130

Th 02/22

555 Clark B01

 

Music 04: Ann Powers, Good Booty

Required Material:

·      Ann Powers, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music (New York: Dey Street Books, 2017), 155-350

·      Hilton Als, “I Am Your Conscious, I Am Love: A paean 2 Prince,” Harper’s, December 2012

·      New Yorker back of the book

·      Pitchfork

·      Chicago Reader, NewCity, Third Coast Review

·      ArtsJournal email

Week 8
Tu 02/27

MCA Chicago

 

Museum Professionals: Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli, Abraham Ritchie, Yolanda Cesta Cursach

Guests:

·      Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli, Director of Digital Media, MCA Chicago

·      Abraham Ritchie, Social Media Manager, MCA Chicago

·      Yolanda Cesta Cursach, Curator of Performance, MCA Chicago

Th 03/01

555 Clark B01

 

Some Recent Cultural Criticism

Required Material:

·      Mark Greif, “Against Exercise,” in Against Everything: Essays (New York: Pantheon, 2016), 3-15

·      Teju Cole, “Black Body,” in Known and Strange Things: Essays (New York: Faber, 2016), 3-16

·      Zadie Smith, “Two Directions for the Novel,” in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (New York: Penguin, 2009), 72-98

·      The Examined Life, dir. Astra Taylor (2008)

·      New Yorker back of the book

·      Chicago Reader, NewCity, Third Coast Review

·      ArtsJournal email

Fr 03/02 Assignment 04: Open Review

In 750-1000 words, write a piece of cultural criticism on a topic of your own choice: it can focus on a museum exhibition, theater performance, music, or topic of social, political, or cultural importance. Draw upon ideas you gleaned from our readings: what that you learned from their cultural criticism translates to your own review? Your short critical essay should include a “close reading” (detailed description) of whatever it is you are examining and then should compellingly link detailed description to interpretation. Try to develop an effective opening “hook” and develop a clear, cogent, and exciting organizational flow for your essay. End strongly. Consider potential multimedia elements (photographs, annotations, video, experiments with design of text, hyperlinks, timelines, etc.). Refer to the rubric for additional information and consider examples and models from our materials as you develop your short critical essay. Remember to select Assignment category, add a featured image, and add any relevant tags. Post on WordPress.

Week 9

 

 
Mo 03/05 Assignment 04 Response
Tu 03/06

555 Clark B01

Dance: Joanna Furnans and Ellen Chenoweth

Guest:

·      Joanna Furnans, Windy City Times, Art Intercepts, Performance Response Journal

·      Ellen Chenoweth, Interim Director, Interim Director, Dance Presenting Series, The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago; Editorial Board Member, ThINKing Dance

Required Materials:

·      Joanna Furnans, Selected writing TK

·      Ellen Chenoweth, Writing, Making, Curating, Blog sections of https://ellenchenoweth.com

·      Zachary Whittenburg, “Sudden Flash: Twenty-first century ballet arrived thirteen years early,” Critical Read, 2016

·      Ann Daly, “The Interested Act of Dance Criticism,” in Critical Gestures: Writings on Dance and Culture (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), xxix-xlii

·      Kate Lydon, “Confessions of a Dance Critic,” Pointe Magazine, 11 November 2011

·      Lauren Warnecke, “One Dance Critic’s View On Choreography And Criticism,” 24 February 2014, 4dancers

·      Madison Mainwaring, “The Death of the American Dance Critic,” The Atlantic, 6 August 2015

·      SeeChicagoDance

·      Performance Response Journal

Th 03/08

555 Clark B01

Conclusions and Reflections

Required Materials:

·      New Yorker back of the book

·      Chicago Reader, NewCity, Third Coast Review

·      ArtsJournal email

Mo 03/12 Assignment 05: Dance Performance

Attend one of the Danceworks 2018 @ Hi-Speed performances on campus. In 750-1000 words, write a review of or reflection on the performance. Draw upon ideas you gleaned from our readings and discussion. Your short critical essay should include a “close reading” (detailed description) of whatever it is you are examining and then should compellingly link detailed description to interpretation. Try to develop an effective opening “hook” and develop a clear, cogent, and exciting organizational flow for your essay. End strongly. Consider potential multimedia elements (photographs, annotations, video, experiments with design of text, hyperlinks, timelines, etc.). Refer to the rubric for additional information and consider examples and models from our materials as you develop your short critical essay. Remember to select Assignment category, add a featured image, and add any relevant tags. Post on WordPress.

Final
We 03/21 Assignment 05 Response

Final Assignment

·     Develop a longer interpretive multimedia essay about a work, activity, event, critic, curator, historical phenomenon, or other topic related to cultural criticism and the contemporary museum. Imagine your essay as a “feature” article or long review, roughly 2000-3000 words but also could be fewer words and more video or audio or use of images other modes of critical analysis/communication. Select something of interest to you, a topic that you wish to spend time investigating. For instance, your essay can be a focused historical study of a particular critic or a time period or it can be a more theoretical exploration of contemporary criticism, it can draw upon and compare readings from our syllabus or branch out to new readings and materials, it can focus on the MCA or Block or it can reach toward other institutions and contexts. You need not aim for breadth in your final assignment, but rather substantive inquiry based on close readings that inform an argument about a particular aspect of cultural criticism. Think carefully about how to unfold your argument and evidence effectively in the digital framework through multimedia and design elements. Consider how your voice and style enhance the interpretation you seek to make—how does the form of your essay fit the content? You may consult with the instructor over the course of the quarter to conceptualize and hone your final essay into successful content and form. Remember to select Assignment category, add a featured images, and add any relevant tags. Post on WordPress.

   

Evaluation

5 assignment posts (50%)

  • Original post of cultural criticism. See rubric and assignment instructions.

5 assignment responses (15%)

  • At least one substantive and thoughtful comment on a fellow classmate’s post. Be critical, ask questions, respond meaningfully, but do so constructively and supportively.

1 final assignment (20%)

  • See rubric and assignment instructions.

Class participation (15%)

  • Please come to seminar meetings prepared to discuss the following: What is the most important point you learned from today’s materials? What is the most important question you have about today’s materials?
  • Please attend museum visits prepared to ask our hosts questions and prepared to engage fully with what you view at museums.

Each student will receive a short midterm evaluation, detailed evaluation of final project, and final term evaluation in the course.

Assignments: Students must complete all assignments to pass the course. Your task is to develop effective and compelling evidence-based arguments informed by close attention to what you observe or witness and enhanced by your attention to history.

Rubric: Your essays (when called for in assignments) must be well written in order to communicate a convincing, compelling, and precise argument that is driven by our description of and analysis of meaning in materials drawn from the course (and other sources if needed). Evaluation is based on the following rubric: (1) presence of an articulated argument, (2) presence of evidence, (3) compelling and precise connection of evidence to argument by comparing and contrasting details and their significance, (4) logical flow and grace of prose: an effective opening introduction; the presence of clear topic sentences; the presence of effective transitions from one part of the assignment to the next; a compelling conclusion, (5) effective use of multimedia and digital elements (weight given to experimentation and innovation).

Late/Extension Policy: Please communicate with your instructor ahead of time if you require an extension for an essay. Reasonable, occasional requests will be granted, but may involve a slight deduction in points to be fair to students who complete work on time. Late assignments without extensions granted will lose 1 point per day.

Writing Consultation: You have not one but two writing centers available for consultation at any stage of writing, from “brainstorming” and outlining an essay to drafting and revising it. Use these services! Appointments and walk-in hours are available at The Writing Place: http://www.writing.northwestern.edu. The History Department also maintains a writing center  available for students working on your assignments. Students wishing to contact the History Department Writing Center should email historywriting@northwestern.edu.

Notes on Using a WordPress Course Blog

We will be using an NU Sites WordPress website as the main arena for writing, conversation, and digital research and publication. Log in using your Northwestern Net ID and password. WordPress is very simple content management software, but it can be stretched and expanded in productive ways. For basic instructions on using WordPress, see: http://codex.wordpress.org. I suggest simply diving in and experimenting with it as the platform is fairly intuitive (we’ll discuss how it works in class as well).

Please note that by enrolling in the course, you agree that it is acceptable to share your classroom work publically. I will generally ask your permission to do so, but the hope is that your best work will be published for an audience beyond our seminar. If you have any concerns—technical, personal, ethical—about public uses of your coursework, please feel free to confer with me to make arrangements. Generally, I advocate what has become known as “open access” in digital work, but there can also be very important and worthy exceptions to this philosophy. If you are curious, here is more from the HASTAC website on the ethics of public blogs for classroom use.

Academic Integrity

All Weinberg College and Northwestern policies concerning plagiarism and academic dishonesty are strictly enforced in this course. If you have any question as to what constitutes plagiarism or academic dishonesty or copyright violation, please feel free to contact the instructor. Please note that under WCAS and Northwestern policy, the instructor is required to report any suspected instances of academic dishonesty. The instructor also reserves the right to assign a failing grade for the course if a student is found to have violated college or university policy concerning academic integrity.

Special Needs

Students with special needs and disabilities that have been declared and documented through the Northwestern Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) should meet with the instructor to discuss any specific accommodations. For further information, see the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) website.

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