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Visions of empire: the theory and uses of allegory in American art from the nineteenth century to the present
Eron, Lucy Elizabeth
Allegorical expression offers a broad complex of meanings applicable to postmodernist art theory and art. Examination of the revival of theoretical interest in allegory in the early twentieth century by Walter Benjamin, and continuing with the work of Craig Owens, Susan Buck-Morss, and other critics, provides an opportunity to see how allegory applies to modern and contemporary art practices and offers a powerful mode of political commentary. Two significant precedents to modern usages of allegory in the overlapping arenas of art and politics are evident in Thomas Cole's The Course of Empire of 1836, which evoked visions of peril for the American Empire through allegory; and, second, in the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, which showcased a range of allegorical subjects to feed a growing discourse of empire and modern industrial progress. The concept of empire in this discourse is considered in light of nineteenth-century political, social, and economic issues, and is significantly linked to America's fascination with ancient ruins. As a result, the ideals and anxieties are revealed that formed a critical chapter in our country's history — a formative period for artistic expression for over a century to come. Important as well to present-day discourse of American Empire and its perceived decline is the paradigm of ancient Rome, which is discussed from historical and contemporary perspectives. Finally, in view of current social, economic, and political problems in the United States, allegory's relevance to contemporary art is explored. A series of politically charged photographic works by Eleanor Antin — The Last Days of Pompeii (2001), Roman Allegories (2004), and Helen's Odyssey (2007) — which vigorously allegorize the vices and fall of empire, provide a revealing case study. The context in which Antin cites diverse sources from history, politics, and art forms both an overt and a richly layered allegorical expression. In the past as now, allegory can potentially provide meaningful political commentary through art, though its effectiveness in shaping a political discourse depends on the artist's use of this intricate device.
Art and Design
Professional Studies and Fine Arts
Master of Arts (M.A.) San Diego State University, 2011
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