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Philadelphia Fire: Art and Politics in America, From the Declaration of Independence to the MOVE Bombing

ENGL 558.940
M 5:30-8:40

Philadelphia has always been one of the artistic and political centers of the United States. In fact, the history of Philadelphia is a representative history of the relation between art and politics in American life more generally. The purpose of this course is to take advantage of our presence in Philadelphia to explore the history of this relation in context. We’ll study important American works of art (chiefly literary works, but we’ll also be open to painting, music, architecture, and film) that have a fundamental connection to the city and, moreover, can also teach us something about art’s shifting relation to politics, from the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote here in 1776, to John Edgar Wideman’s novel about the city’s deadly 1985 bombing of the MOVE headquarters in West Philadelphia. Other figures of interest will include Benjamin Franklin, Lucretia Mott, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Eakins, Marian Anderson, John Coltrane, Edmund Bacon, George Cukor, and Jonathan Demme. In addition, we will read selected key works of aesthetic and political theory, ranging from Plato to Kant to Adorno, to help us discuss and debate the merits of the question: What is political about art, and what is artistic about politics? The course will also fan out from the classroom. Sometimes this will mean visiting a particular site (such as the Library Company of Philadelphia, or the Eastern State Penitentiary) together as a class. More often, you will be asked to venture out on your own, in order to pursue an assignment or independent research topic. For some students, this will be an opportunity to do some original archival work. For others, it will be a chance to learn more about how present-day Philadelphia and its citizens commemorate and erase certain aspects of the city’s long, rich, and conflict-laden history. Requirements will include several very short essays, an in-class presentation, and a longer final essay.

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