Reading Revolutions:  Ideas for Teaching

Learning Activities:  Influence of Art on Culture

Ideas don't just come from philosophers and politicians, the visual arts offer a broad view of humanity and influence our self-perceptions, while literature can incite both guilt and ideals.  One of the ways to illustrate this is to look at the subject matter of painting and literature over time.

For instance, the works of Dickens are a reflection of the new emphasis placed on the individual right to freedom and the importance of individual lives.  The political and philosophical writings of the 1700's were being applied in the 1800's to everyday life at the most fundamental level.  What would the Civil War be without Uncle Tom's Cabin and Little Sheeba?  The struggle to change society and customs to meet the new ideals continues today.

If you are a history teacher, arrange a classroom exchange with the art teacher or English teacher.  If you are an art teacher, suggest a collaborative project with the Social Science teacher so that students both examine the art of a period and produce art to illustrate the social situation of the time.  The students might take a look at the broadsides produced during the Civil War and contrast them to the posters of World War II, and to Andy Warhol's soup cans.

Contrasting the Impressionist painters with earlier more formal works can help the student to understand the new emphasis on personal expression.  A good exercise to accompany this would be to have the students create a drawing or painting under a different set of beliefs.  What kind of painting would you produce if you believed that  1) the king had god-like powers and you were a peasant  2) we were a protected species on a planet protected by vastly more intelligent beings  3) all art belonged to the State as did all products of individuals.

Have the students examine advertising art in magazines and on the Internet.  What assumptions underlie the images? What do the images make us believe about ourselves, about our freedom?  See if you can find some old copies of Time or Life, Good Housekeeping and Sports Illustrated would be even better.  Let the students play around with the ideas we project now with what their grandparents and great-grandparents thought.  How is the family pictured?  How is love pictured?  Bring in several books on antique furniture and decoration from the Federalist era.  Have the students contrast the decorations used and discuss the symbolic meanings.  It won't take them long to notice the number of eagles and other patriotic symbols.  Do we have symbols equivalent to the pineapple of the colonial era?

(c)Marilyn Shea, 2005