4.608 / 4.609
Seminar in the History of Art and Design: Material Histories

Permission of Instructor
Limited to 15, UG: 4.609, G: 4.608
Required of: 
Restricted elective Arch. minor

This seminar examines episodes in the history of art and design from the perspective of the materials used in their production. Engaging a variety of material substances and examining selected case studies of their manipulation across diverse geographies from the ancient world to the mid twentieth century, the class asks how materials have historically conditioned the conception and meanings of artworks and how a focus on matter can bring into view the environmental impacts and the human costs of design. What meanings, for example, did metals or minerals mined from the earth or imported from distant parts of the world hold for early modern viewers? How can the study of furniture inlaid with ivory from Southeast Asia or made from mahogany sourced in the eighteenth-century Caribbean expose the blindspots attending the global systems of labor and transportation that moved such materials? Conversely, how might the uses of wood veneer reveal historical ideologies and/or period imaginaries of nature, time, and a nascent ecological awareness? What can the material attractions of porcelain or of plate glass and mirror glass reveal about cultural imaginaries in Asia and in Europe? And what does clay have to do with the styling and planned obsolescence for which the twentieth-century American automobile industry was renowned?