Like many of the readings for this semester, when I first opened Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America I expected to be interested but not necessarily see the relevance to my own work because of its early time frame and focus on “high art.” While both of these elements of Bellion’s work remain true, I found much of her analysis elucidating for my own work. I also found her emphasis on the idea that it was not only art, but elements of the city itself that people engaged with as relevant to her points.
Early on Bellion pointed out that in early national America debates over the value of the arts were common. Prominent intellectuals and politicians asserted that art was a luxury of the wealthy and had no place in a truly democratic nation. While artists and supporters of the arts ended up winning, it is interesting that the same debates that are commonly had about the role of art in US society and what constitutes a luxury were being had in the early national period as well.
Bellion argues for art as as a form of political formation (pg 64). While a very different type of object (and quite possibly a stretch), my object, as paraphanelia from a governmental program in some ways represents similar objectives. By selling and giving DARE shirts to children who went through the program, the governmental program created a narrative of success and support. It also had free advertising. While DARE had very different goals than Washington did as he bowed to a painting in early national america, the political implications of both of these events can be seen in similar ways.
In the chapter “Sight and the City” Bellion clarifies the ways in which early prints of Philadelphia reinforced narratives of progress and the city’s creation narrative (117). While being presented to the public as a “true” depiction of the city, it was still presenting “illusions.”In many ways Bellion’s book is about art as propaganda, and when read this way the relationship between early national art and my own object, the DARE T shirt, become clear. What does the DARE T shirt say about the program and the governments intentions? While the War on Drugs had many adverse attempts, the claim of the shirt to “keep kids of drugs” clearly skews viewers perceptions in certain ways. This again may be a stretch, but the construction of visual narratives and illusion struck me as relevant to my own project.