COMM 544 Syllabus
Fall, 1999
Professor James R. Beniger
244 Annenberg School
Wednesdays, 6:45-9:45 p.m.
213-740-0913 (o)
310-546-3040 (h)


This course explores the nature of art, in particular the questions of what is or is not art and what, more generally, art is or is not. Classical answers to these questions began to be complicated by 19th century industrialization and the resulting technological and cultural revolution in the media of communication: photography, mass publishing, motion pictures, television, video and computers. For this reason, we will pay special attention in seeking to understand the nature of art to the modern material economy of mass production, distribution, communication and consumption, its relationship to popular culture, and the resulting impact on our visual environment, the forest of symbols and associated meanings in which we live.

As context for our quest to understand the apparently universal human impulse to create art, we shall begin with a brief examination of the foundations and history of Western art and culture from Classical Greece and the Gothic Middle Ages through the Renaissance, Baroque, and Romantic periods. Particularly informative, for our purposes, will be the development of photography after the late 1830s and its impact on academic painting into the 20th century. We will follow this "crisis of realism" from the work of Courbet and Manet, pioneers of modern art, through Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism to the current Post-Modern Age, ever mindful of the Galassi thesis that painting (the figurative) helps to invent the language of photography (the literal).

Mass cultural influences on our ways of seeing including industrial design and high fashion, the built environment, standardization and packaging, and television advertising will also be considered. The goal here is to unravel the causal interrelationships among technology and economy, popular culture and art, and the various criteria of aesthetics that might exist both in our world and in our heads. Classical conceptions of art as the imitation of nature, from Plato and Aristotle, will be challenged by views emphasizing the creative, symbolic, cathartic and socializing aspects of art. Debated throughout will be opposing views of the good in art as objective (inherent in content) and subjective (peculiar to each observer). Our central question remains, however, not what is good art but what art is -and why.


This syllabus lists readings to be completed in preparation for each lecture. Reading ought to be done in the order listed whenever possible. There is method in this madness! Required reading assignments average 67 pages per meeting but range up to 142 pages. Although approximately half of all assigned pages consists of pictures, planning ahead to accommodate longer assignments is strongly urged. To be read in their entirety are four books, all available in paper, that are listed here in the order of their first assignment: Also useful, but either part or entirely optional, are the following four books:

Mostly Required Reading