In his 1872 essay “Democratic Vistas” the poet Walt Whitman writes that “democracy is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.” This course tests Whitman’s supposition through diverse cultural practices, with a special focus on the relationship between art and democracy.
We will read and consider the formative ideas about democratic culture that emerged in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. We will then trace the literary aspirations and social contradictions of American democracy in a series of case studies, including debates in the twentieth century about art and public engagement that arose in response to John Dewey’s ideas about what he called “creative democracy,” and the singular cultural work of Adrienne Rich, focusing primarily on her essays published in the collection Blood, Bread and Poetry and her poems from the late 1980s in An Atlas of the Difficult World.
Terry Tempest Williams’ appeal to democratic engagement in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001 will offer a conceptual framework for the second half of the course. “In the open space of democracy,” Williams writes in a commencement address she presented at the University of Utah, “we are listening–ears alert–we are watching–eyes open–registering the patterns and possibilities for engagement” (76). In the spirit of commencement, we will consider more contemporary cultural projects that challenge formal conventions and unsettle institutionalized practices, and that enlarge our understanding of art as social and communicative action.
During the final weeks of the course students will contribute to a collaborative project in the Keene State College archives and will design and pursue an individual research project. Student projects will draw on primary materials, in library-based and digital archives, to further develop research experience and methods in defining, organizing, and elaborating the significance of these materials in the public domain.
Required Reading A good deal of the reading in this course is accessible through the Schedule page. The Reading page is the reading list for the course. In addition to the digital materials, we will be reading three books that you are required to purchase.
Robert A. Dahl. On Democracy. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. ISBN 978-0-300-084559
Adrienne Rich. An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991. New York, Norton, 1991. ISBN 0-393-30831-6
Doris Sommer. The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities. Durham: Duke UP, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8223-5586-1