Course Details

Course offered Winter 2012

Honors 241 A: Artists, Citizens, and Censors: The Trouble With Art in Fascist and Communist Societies

Honors 241 A: Artists, Citizens, and Censors: The Trouble With Art in Fascist and Communist Societies (A&H)

SLN 14357 (View UW registration info »)

Ileana Marin (Comparative History of Ideas; Comparative Literature)
Phone: 206 604-1831

Credits: 5
Limit: 30 students

Honors Credit Type

The course “Artists, Citizens, and Censors: The Trouble with Art in Fascist and Communist Societies” combines the study of primary documents which have defined and regulated censorship with the analysis of famous works whose public impact was delayed due to what was deemed to be their seditious content. By way of introduction we will watch Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976), which ridicules McCarthy’s attempts to censor the Hollywood industry. The film will facilitate a discussion of censorship, citizenship, and artistry. We will then review various legislations on censorship, including the Catholic Church’s list of forbidden works (Index Librorum Prohibitorum), published regularly from 1564 to 1966; the British Obscene Publications Act of 1857; and concluding with fascist and communist forms of censorship. We will acquaint ourselves with the most oppressive authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century (fascism and communism) as we cross disciplinary boundaries, engaging history, law, politics, religion, ethics, literature, and aesthetics.

We will read texts ranging across every major literary genre, starting with the novels All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929) and the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1973). We will also investigate the reasons which impelled communist authorities around the globe to ban Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1954) and Vaclav Havel’s The Garden Party (1963). Although apparently inoffensive, the theatre of the absurd, to which both plays belong, was considered dangerous for dictatorial political regimes that were based on a limitation of individual rights. Beckett and Havel mocked stereotypical attitudes in order to suggest that language itself may become a paradoxical means of communicating the impossibility of communication. We will examine poems by Huang Xiang (China) which became subject to censorship. Close readings of poems by Xiang will give us access to the type of writing that is born when authors are acutely aware of being exposed to censorship and develop strategies to reach readers while deceiving vigilant censors. The analysis of historical, political, and cultural contexts of these censored texts will provide a closer look at the conditions which led policy makers to repress literature and enable us to understand how these texts threatened the political establishment.

The goal of this course is to provide a substantial experience of the cultural oppression and moral perversity practiced by fascism and communism, as well as of the way in which artists innovate alternative models of expression in the context of censorship. In addition to close readings of major texts, we will examine censored paintings and films in order to identify the aesthetic strategies that fostered powerful meanings and triggered violent official reactions from fascist and communist authorities. A selective, yet relevant group of paintings signed by Rene Magritte, Max Ernst, Edward Munch, and Salvador Dali (among others) and films directed by Jean Renoir, Roman Polanki, and Jerzy Domaradzki will be discussed in class, in order to uncover the underlying artistic conventions, hidden meanings, and social expectations at the time of their debut. More importantly, we will try to unpack the paradox of why dictators fear artists so much and will investigate how works can both reflect their authors’ responses to their own times and circumstances, and at the same time appeal to a public living in very different contexts.

Each student will present one critical reading from the course packet and will provide a handout with the main points of the article, including clarifications of the author’s more difficult points, questions for the rest of the class, and potentially quotable passages. You will meet with me 2 days before the presentation to discuss the text and the format of the presentation. The rest of the students are expected to read the texts critically and participate in the discussions.

For this class, you will develop a detailed research project on censorship. By the end of week 5 you will have an idea of how different forms of censorship work and will start looking into potential topics you might like to investigate. A list of potential topics will be circulated and discussed in class and in conferences. A preliminary bibliography will be provided for each project after we meet one-on-one. You are expected to expand the initial bibliography, both by incorporating texts from the course reading list and by adding new titles. The end of Week 8 will turn in the bibliography as annotated bibliography. Students will present their case studies during the last two weeks of the quarter, according to a schedule circulated in class. Before their presentation they will distribute handouts to their peers, in order to facilitate conversation, comments, and suggestions.

Writing a paper on literary censorship is by definition a challenge, both in terms of choosing the topic and in terms of structuring the approach. You may develop your case studies into academic papers. The papers will make use of the critical readings in the course packet. Final papers, about 12 pages, will follow the MLA style for in-text citations and will have a Works Cited list at the end.