Professor Elissa Weichbrodt will teach a new class this fall on artistic approaches to race, called Race in American Art, a topic students say is significant.
Weichbrodt says the class will focus on artistic perceptions of race in America from the pre-colonial period through the Civil Rights movement. The course will feature perspectives on constructions of whiteness and blackness, Latino culture, Japanese and Chinese immigration, and Native culture.
American art and visual culture has a strong, racial narrative, Weichbrodt says. “American art in particular provides a fertile ground for exploration because race as a construct has been such an important, dominant, and controlling part of our narrative,” she says. “The visual aspect of our ideas about race are part of their potency.”
As Covenant’s art historian, Weichbrodt wishes to navigate America’s racial history via the images that one might see in museums, while also exploring “vernacular” images—that is, posters and photographs shared in everyday circles.
Student artists are pleased to have the opportunity to take the class, noting its significance in light of current events. “I think it’s interesting and important that this class is happening at this point,” says sophomore art major Caleb Smith. “I believe it’s relevant to conversations we’re already having at Covenant.”
Weichbrodt says that there are many components, including philosophy and aesthetics, to evaluating a piece of art, but is particularly interested in the social component of art: the relationship of the art piece to its place in history, especially concerning underprivileged people groups.
“My own research is very focused on questions about how art and visual culture can reveal or conceal narratives of marginalization,” she says. “Be that women or people of color or any number of marginalized narratives.”
Weichbrodt points out that although the class will not look at contemporary work, the themes in the course are relevant to the current conversation around race in America. She says examples include a testimony at the hearing of Darren Wilson, the police officer who in 2014 shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the Presbyterian Church in America’s corporate repentance last year for actions during the Civil Rights era.
In his testimony regarding Michael Brown, Darren Wilson claimed that Brown “was like a giant” and had an “intense aggressive face” that looked like “a demon.” Many believe his language mirrors the widespread depiction during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of black men as monstrous brutes.
Weichbrodt also says that the course is significant for Covenant students in light of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Overture on Racial Reconciliation, which the 44th General Assembly approved last June. The resolution acknowledges the denomination’s historical mistreatment and shunning of minorities and urges its churches to acknowledge their racial sins and seek reconciliation with those they have wronged.
“As a college of the Presbyterian Church in America, it’s valuable to look at history and see if there are any ways to repent as individuals or even as a broader community,” says Weichbrodt. “There’s a sense that this is an important national conversation that’s happening. I wanted to be part of that and to help equip students to be part of that as well.”