Winter 2012: "Popular Visual Culture in Medieval and EM Japan and Europe"

In this seminar, we will utilize a comparative perspective in considering the role of the visual arts within popular religion in Europe and Japan during the Medieval and Early Modern periods. We will interrogate categories of “art” and “popular religion” in relation to specific cultural and theoretical discourses, both historical and modern. We will pay special attention to how period texts and images associate popular religious practices with superstition, ignorance, misbehavior, rusticity, and the transgression of orthodox belief. In studies of various cultures, “popular religion” is often understood as a binary term with diverse and contradictory associations: extra-liturgical, traditional, indigenous, subaltern, mass, etc. Art historians of both East Asia and Europe have tended to conceive of popular religious art in terms of a “high-low” binary dependent on a quality criterion, rather than on socioeconomic, cultural, and historical considerations. Popular religious art is thus characterized as evincing little skill, a lack of expressive power, misinterpretation of orthodox beliefs, cheap manufacture, and the utilization of mechanical reproduction. This criterion of quality often leads to the designation as “popular” objects that were, in fact, historically situated within elite, learned, and dominant cultural spheres. Our class will challenge these categories and consider more fruitful and historically accurate ways to understand visual culture that often has been left out of the purview of art history.