Age of Enlightenment and Revolution—Art History

Art produced in seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century was mobilized for political purposes. Royalty and revolutionaries used art as a means of solidifying their power. Anthony van Dyck specialized in court portraiture. International painters copied the artist’s refined style; other painters reflected his style well into the nineteenth century (Gardner 678-9).

Charles I Dismounted (image from here)

His Charles I Dismounted (c. 1635) depicts “the absolutist monarch Charles I at a sharp angle so that the king, a short man, appears to be looking down at the viewer” (678). The king was in fact five foot, four inches. Because the monarch was rather short, this “forced him to exert his power in ways other than physical” (678-9). Charles I was a Stuart king, whom Parliament did not like because of his absolute reign. Although Charles I was actually a sickly man, he appears here as a man of action as he appears to be moving forward as well as confident with his arm akimbo and in a contrapposto stance. His sword is displayed as he overlooks the ocean, suggesting his rule over the navy and trade, in order to solidify his power as a leader.

Louis XIV, the sun king, “was a master of political strategy and propaganda” (Gardner 696). He sought adherence to the idea of the divine right of kings. Rigaud’s Louis XIV (c. 1701) depicts the king’s direct gaze down on the viewer, even though the king was short. The king was sixty-three years old at the creation of this painting, yet he appears young here, harkening back to Roman traditions of depicting authority. This painting was placed over his throne, so when the king was not present, no one was allowed to turn their back on the painting. This portraiture is carefully crafted to depict absolute authority.

Louis XIV (image from here)

The Age of Enlightenment led men and women to think and experiment. In the philosophical poem “Essay on Man,” Alexander Pope explains, “Far as Creation’s ample range extends, / The scale of sensual mental power ascends,” suggesting the importance of agency and reason in addition to pointing out that humans ought to try to understand man and this world. Additionally, Voltaire’s satirical Candide mocks the aristocracy and the German philosopher who claimed that everything is for the best. Voltaire concludes with the importance of community, ending “we must cultivate our gardens,” which is all that one can do. After all the terrible occurrences, Pangloss and his friends do not continue to try to solve the world’s problems. However, the development of thinking introduced new ideas concerning government, emphasizing a shift from royal absolutism to republicanism.

Overseas, the colonial leaders questioned the idea of absolute authority. Houdon’s George Washington (c. 1788–92) was commissioned by the newly established United States government, which was trying to dismantle the old ideals of absolute monarchy and to move towards republicanism. Washington was not to look too kingly so no crown is present, yet he leans on a walking stick, which has associations with scepters and royalty. Washington, a gentleman farmer, does lean on Roman fasces, “a bundle of rods with an ax attached . . . an emblem of authority” (Gardner 773). This refers back to the Roman Republic and their ideals of government.

George Washington (image from here)

Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the St. Bernard (c. 1800) depicts Napoleon in an attempt to appear as a leader. When crossing the Alps to fight the Austrians, Napoleon had followed the soldiers who had gone before him on a donkey, while the painting by David shows the foil of the actual reality. After the coup d’état, staging the overthrow, France needed a strong leader to govern.

Napoleon Crossing the St. Benard (image from here)

The French loved that Napoleon was a military hero, which was seen as a romantic career, leading expeditions to conquer the Italians, settle land, and colonize. While Napoleon acted as first Consul in 1799–1804, Napoleon attempted to show himself as capable, based on meritocracy or through his ability to rise to the top. Napoleon stroked the French ego, suggesting they did the right thing by overthrowing the monarchy and killing the idea of absolutism. He attempted to model himself after Republican leaders. By having his name engraved in stone along with Hannibal and Charlemagne (both had crossed the Alps), Napoleon joins with past authority. His white horse is symbolic of power. His cloak functions as a cloth of honor. His upward hand appears like a gesture of blessing, similar to Christ’s. Thus, he endows himself with associations of the divine and great military rulers. This false illusion makes better propaganda for the French people than what actually occurred.

The Age of Scientific Revolution—Art History

The Age of the Scientific Revolution changed the way people essentially thought. Descartes “discovered that he could doubt everything except that he was doubting” (Davis 496) and explains in Discourse on Method: “whilst I thus wished to think all things false, it was absolutely essential that . . . remarking that this truth ‘I think, therefore I am’ was so certain . . . that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by skeptics incapable of shaking it” (502).

Descartes (image from here)

Descartes first proves his own existence and then seeks to prove the existence of God. His approach is called Cartesian skepticism, meaning to doubt everything. Therefore, people no longer accept what they had been told. However, just because an individual had faith in science did not necessarily mean that they had no faith in God.

After the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and the Treaty of Westphalia, “the United Provinces of the Netherlands . . . expanded their authority” (Gardner 673). Territorial boundaries changed in addition to granting greater religious freedom because “This treaty . . . marked the abandonment of the idea of a united Christian Europe” (Gardner 673). This reconciliation between Christianity and science is evident at the dawn of the Golden Age of the Dutch republic. The Dutch, who were very prosperous and cosmopolitan, were interested in tolerance, other areas, and ideas, which is evident in their art.

Art related to the development of the Scientific Revolution. Scientists experimented, prompting greater intellectual freedom. Free thought led to greater religious toleration, especially by the Dutch. For example, Johannes Vermeer was Catholic in Protestant Dutch Republic. His genre painting Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), where the woman holds “empty scales in perfect balance, ignoring pearls and gold on the table, is probably an allegory of the temperate life” (688). Thus, the woman thinks about her life, free from worldliness and in search of balance.

Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance (image from here)

Additionally, Calvinism was influential by its emphasis on modesty. This period became the embarrassment of riches. For example, Frans HalsCatharina Hooft and Her Nurse (c. 1620) depicts the ostentatious versus the modest. In this time of greater freedom of thought and experimentation, “the traditional conventions [of portraiture] became inappropriate and thus unusable,” so “Hals produced lively portraits that seem far more relaxed than traditional formulaic portraiture” (Gardner 681). There is evident interest in the detail and fidelity to nature. The nursemaid dresses almost puritanical, contrasting black and white, while the baby has a beautiful lace. This says much about the tension of the classes and the pious versus the ornate in Dutch society.

Hals’ Catharina Hooft and Her Nurse (image from here)

Landscape paintings, such as Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem (c. 1670), reflect life experience. Art in the home was important; however, the paintings usually were not biblical or historical, but rather they were genre or landscape, since “Most Dutch families owned and worked their own farms, cultivating a feeling of closeness to the terrain” (686). Haarlem was one of the major cities in the Netherlands, and the viewer could recognize the church and the sea. By depicting the bleaching of linen and clusters of homes, this piece becomes a celebration of work, industry, or the common way of life.

van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem (image from here)

Here the artist “not only captured the appearance of a specific locale but also succeeded in imbuing the work with a quiet serenity that becomes almost spiritual” (688). The sky is given great attention, since it covers more than two-thirds of the painting. Van Ruisdael is observing the world around him and valuing the virtue of honesty and sincerity. The realm of the sky stresses the openness of religious tolerance and the recourses in the reality of this great age of exploration and development. The people were inquisitive and nationalistic, which is displayed in their art.

Art could moralize, as with Flower Still Life (c. 1726) by Rachel Ruysch, because “As living objects that soon die, flowers, particularly cut blossoms, appeared frequently in vantias paintings” (Gardner 690). The Dutch Republic is surrounded by flowers, and flowers are taken seriously in a commercial way and made into an enterprise. Here flowers are depicted in different stages of bloom and decline along with caterpillars and bugs, thus brining greater naturalism. After the first flush of beauty, the cut flowers eventually decay and reveal imperfections. This still life moralizes, since the viewer should not value that which is transient, whether it be flowers, food, clothing, or wealth. Instead, the viewer should focus on humbler or simpler things. Still life paintings made more money though, suggesting that still life art relates to their world being described and what the buyers wanted.

Ruysch’s Flower Still Life (image from here)

The Age of Catholic Counter-Reformation

The religious conflicts in the 16th century continued throughout the 17th century. The Catholic Reformation (AKA the Counter-Reformation) did not work in tandem with Protestant Reformation.

Pope Paul III (image from here)

It was a long process because certain popes did not want to respond to those who had questions; additionally, there was much civil unrest. Plus, reforming the Catholic Church, which covered all of Europe and spread into the New World, was overwhelmingly difficult.

However, in 1545, Pope Paul III held the Council of Trent. This council reviewed certain Church doctrine, such as transubstantiation, but did not conclude until 1563.

An edict written by the Council of Trent stated there should be “images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints” (Gardner 596). For example, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini depicts a nun, who had visions and was made a saint, thus “correlating with the ideas of Ignatius Loyola, who argued the re-creation of spiritual experience would do much to increase devotion and piety” (654). The various kinds of media, from the electrified, marble-carved fabric against the clouds and radiant beams, draw the viewer in. However, the male figures on the side could suggest that this woman’s spiritual experience was regulated by men and not to make everyone think that they could be like her. Something was exceptional about this.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (image from here)

By resisting the Protestant objection of having art in church, Catholic Counter-Reformation art was seen as a means of instruction that was accessible to the masses by being more realistic or naturalistic. The edict explained that bishops should teach “by means of the stories . . . portrayed in paintings . . . the people are instructed and confirmed in the articles of faith, which ought to be born in mind and constantly reflected upon” (596).

For example, The Last Supper (c. 1592–94) by Tintoretto is realistic because the setting is a darkened tavern lighted by torches and candles. This is a common place where household objects are seen in addition to servants—even women—preparing dishes. However, this is not a regular feast scene. The viewer could step in by identifying with the woman washing the dishes. The individual viewer could be a part of this scene but is also instructed concerning the sacrament.

The Last Supper (image from here)

Additionally, Entombment by Caravaggio “gave visual form to the doctrine of transubstantiation” (661) because the lowering of Christ’s body is parallel to the table where the altar would have been; therefore, the body of Christ is lifted down and given to you to take the literal body of Christ. Some critics charged this portrayal as too naturalistic because Christ’s feet are dirty and callused. His body is not idealized with skin obviously exposed to the sun.

Entombment (image from here)

Another important element seen in the Counter-Reformation was the generation of community or the gathering of the flock back together. For example, Vignola and Giacomo della Porta’s Il Gesu (c. 1573–84) in Rome was “the most influential building” of the time. After Pope Paul III “formally recognized this group as a religious order” (622), the Jesuits were effective missionaries by sending missionaries across the world and educators by establishing schools.

Il Gesu (image from here)

With Il Gesu, “the nave takes over the main volume of space, making the structure a great hall with side chapels” (622). Making the nave the center area, similar to the area of a ship, the individual is brought towards the altar and—consequently—Christ. The person could not just stand in the lobby, or the narthex of early Christian basilicas or churches where a person must decide whether to go in or not. Instead, everyone who enters is thrown into the nave—they are on the ship moving towards Christ. The plain exterior contrasts with the majestic interior, representing the soul, to make viewers marvel, not to make viewers feel insignificant. Thus, this unites all those inside on seeing what heaven is like.

Supposedly, all this was done so the faithful may remember God: “give God thanks for those things, may fashion their own life and conduct in imitation of the saints and be moved to adore and love God and cultivate piety” (596). However, the new age of the Scientific Revolution would have people who would find the old ways not sufficient to their questions.

The Age of Reformation—Art History

During the Age of Reformation, religious contentions split Christendom, creating wars between Protestants and Catholics in Europe. However, “the exchange of intellectual and artistic ideas continued to thrive” (Gardner 625). There was trade between Italy, mainly Catholic, and the Holy Roman Empire, mainly Protestant.

Martin Luther (image from here)

Art benefited from this exchange because the ideals of humanism spread from Italy throughout all of Northern Europe (625). These Northern humanists learned about the cultures and literature of classical antiquity, yet they focused “more on reconciling humanism with Christianity” (625), thus gaining the name “Christian humanists.” Therefore, many artists developed a distinct Northern tradition.

Artists showed biblical experiences occurring in Flemish homes because “religion was such an integral part of Flemish life that separating the sacred from the secular became virtually impossible” (Gardner 522). Northern European artists loved disguised symbolism.

Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin shows the Annunciation occurring in an every day home. The triptych’s side panels depict roses, symbolic of Mary’s immaculate conception, and rodent traps, referring to the black plague that wiped out half of Europe’s population in addition to St. Augustine’s writings about Christ setting the trap for Satan. By placing this sacred scene in these common surroundings, it made the religious world accessible.

Merode Altarpiece (image from here)

Campin trained the new generation of artists, including Jan van Eyck, who painted Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride. The portrait shows shoes taken off, suggesting holy ground, and along the mirror depicts scenes from the passion of Christ. This is “a purely secular portrait, but one with religious overtones” (524).

Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride (image from here)

Money-Changer and His Wife by Quentin Massys reflects a connection to the Renaissance interest in combining sacred and secular. The oil on wood depicts a “secular financial transaction” and “a commentary on 16th century Netherlandish values” (639). At this time, “trade and shipbuilding was one of the most profitable businesses” (637).

The man sifts through the coins, focusing on one in particular, while the woman looks on. Is she neglecting her prayer book and focusing on worldly possessions, made possible from recent wealth? By joining the secular and the sacred, as this artwork can become a cautionary or celebratory tale. Therefore, the artwork depicts either a materialistic man and woman or a metaphorical representation of the last judgment. If the second be true, then the man is symbolic of Christ, and the wife is symbolic of Mary as intercessor.

Money-Changer and His Wife (image from here)

Albrecht Dürer is known as the Michelangelo of the North and is a Christian humanist. His Self-Portrait bears an undoubtedly strong resemblance to Christ, almost sacrilegiously. The gentle, cascading fall of curly ringlets rests against the thick fur. His fine, thin skin is smoothed into a serious expression. Dürer saw himself as the Savior of the German art world; he was going to help German artists come out of the provincial, unschooled technique and to teach them the latest techniques. There was the idea that Italians were corrupt and decadent, while purity was in the North where piety reigned.

Self-Portrait (image from here)

This self portrait of Dürer’s is “reminiscent of medieval icons” (Gardner 628), such as Christ as Savior of Souls from the church of Saint Clement in Macedonia.

Christ as Savior of Souls (image from here)

Dürer’s right hand is similar to the gesture of blessing by Byzantine icons but not quite—that would be blasphemous (628). Focusing on the hands could suggest creativity; therefore, the idea of “the artist as a divinely inspired genius,” a humanist view, had impacted the German artist in the North. Ultimately, he became known as “the first Northern European artist to understand fully the basic aims of the Renaissance in Italy” (628).

During this religious turmoil, Dürer converted to Lutheranism. Four Apostles shows his support. The four apostles include John and Peter on the left panel with Mark and Paul on the right. Each apostle has “individual personalities and portraitlike features” (630), referring to the humanist ideal of focusing on the individual and his or her potential.

In this painting, Dürer has John the Evangelist in prominence because Peter, who was considered representative of the pope, stands behind. The New Testament writings of John connected with Luther because of his focus on Christ. Additionally, Dürer chooses to depict both John and Peter reading the Bible together; Martin Luther believed the Bible was “the single authoritative source of religious truth” (630). Luther writes in An Open Letter, “[T]hey cannot produce a letter in defense of it, that the interpretation of Scripture . . . belongs to the pope alone” (51). These radical arguments were made possible by the humanists of the Renaissance, who encouraged people to think, learn, and question.

Four Apostles (image from here)

Humanism and the Age of the Renaissance in Art History

image from here

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola wrote Oration on the Dignity of Man, which explains how humans are not base animalistic creatures.

God is above—the animals below; humans are, when taking into consideration the great chain of being, in the center. Mirandola argues men ought to “struggle toward the heavenly” (2205). Therefore, this description reveals the basic core of humanism during the Renaissance.

This was not the Medieval period, when menial serfs were subjugated to power-hungry masters and imperious lords. The medieval Christian world dominated all areas of life: the social, political, and economical. The Renaissance became a rebirth or a reconciliation of the secular and the sacred, the pagan and the religious. This merging was important in finding truth or meaning through a variety of sources. Humanism, which can be defined in a variety of ways, is a code of civil conduct, a theory of education, or a scholarly discipline, yet underlying humanism is human interests and values.

First, for humanists, there was “an emphasis . . . on expanding knowledge, especially of classical antiquity” (Gardner 541). During this time, the invention of movable type enabled easier distribution of books and greater communication, while artists used a different medium to accomplish humanist ideals. For example, Brunelleschi built the Dome of the Florence Cathedral and brought back elements of balance, proportion, and symmetry—a modern response to the Pantheon in Rome. But he did solve “this critical structural problem through what were essentially Gothic building principles” (562), thus engaging with past cultures while developing a new Renaissance style.

image from here

Similarly, Botticelli’s tempera on canvas, Birth of Venus, does “not directly imitate classical antiquity but used the myths . . . in a way still tinged with medieval romance” (560). The theme is a retelling of the Greek myth, based on a poem by Poliziano, who was a humanist. Venus is nude, which was “rare during the Middle Ages” but “under the protection of the powerful Medici, the depiction went unchallenged” (560). Therefore, Renaissance artists could influence people by expanding their knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology.

image from here

Second, “a commitment to civic responsibility and moral duty” (Gardner 541) is a tenet of humanism. During the 15th century, Italy consisted of fragmented city-states. Princely courts became centers of power and culture.

image from here

Art could be used as propaganda, which would enable those in power to reinforce their control. For example, the Old Testament King David was seen as a civic symbol for the people of Florence, which led the Florence Cathedral building committee to ask Michelangelo to create the iconic David.

This sculpture is represented in the classical nude. Michelangelo shows David before fighting Goliath. As a result, his sculpture has strong psychological intensity and “towering, pent-up emotion rather than calm, ideal beauty” (591). Florentines call David “the Giant,” perhaps because of its colossal size as well as its significance in their culture. A political leader, when referring to David, said that “just as David had protected his people and governed them justly, so whoever ruled Florence should vigorously defend the city and govern it with justice” (590). Therefore, Renaissance art could symbolize the ideal of civic responsibility.

Finally, “the exploration of the individual potential and a desire to excel” (541) was essential to humanist thought. Romans sought for the idealization of the human body in sculpture, through techniques (such as contrapposto, or natural weight shift), as shown in Polykleitos’s Doryphoros. Michelangelo believed “the body was beautiful not only in its natural form but also in its spiritual and philosophical significance” because “The body was the manifestation of the soul” (594).

image from here

For example, one of the central panels in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Creation of Adam shows “a bold humanistic interpretation of the momentous event” (594). God, transcending from the heavens, stretches out to touch the outstretched finger of Adam. The dramatic spark of life and communication parallels that of gods and heroes belonging to classical myths. Both bodies “are complementary—the concave body of Adam fitting the convex body and billowing ‘cloak’ of God” (594). Thus, these curves and diagonals portrayed suggest the potential interconnectivity of the mortal and the divine—a humanist ideal.

image from here

Similarly, Mirandola describes how he imagined God speaking with Adam: “Thou . . . art the molder and maker of thyself . . . Thou canst again grow upward from thy soul’s reason into the higher natures which are divine” (2204). Unlike the Medieval thought that humans were victims of fate, Renaissance thought suggested the possibility of individual improvement.

Stop Audism—Now

Audism is the oppression of deaf people and occurs when people believe they are superior, since they can hear. Eugenics includes the attempts to create a pure human race; those outside are inferior and not worth living.

  1. Deaf people were prevented from entering the United States.
  2. Sterilization has been forced on deaf people.
  3. Euthanasia occurred, such as in concentration camps, during WWII in Germany.

image from here

In a film about Audism, one man told how his mother never learned ASL and was not able to state her last words on her deathbed; he was so expressive in his signing, and it was obvious that he still felt sad about this experience years later. All children struggle to communicate with their parents as they grow up, but it is hard to imagine not being able to communicate with my parents at all.

Deaf artists often create pieces to express their frustrations, but these artworks also create awareness and communicate with both hearing and deaf individuals the experience of being deaf. Viewing deaf art and poetry can help hearing people sympathize with what it means to be deaf.

image from here

We can all make a difference by stopping Audism. Learning ASL and studying deaf culture makes people less ignorant. There is a rich, vibrant deaf community. Rather than assuming all deaf people are the same or less intelligent and excluding them, we can stop oppression by learning about the individual and including all people—hearing and deaf.

Human Isolation in Urban Setting

image from here

The oil painting depicts a man sitting on the edge of a sidewalk, stretching his tired left leg while flexing his left foot outward into the street. Resting his right foot in the gutter, the man hunches over. While the disconsolate man rests near a fire hydrant, rows and rows of concatenated legs walk down the sidewalk, since the pedestrians are shown from the knee down. One could almost see the ephemeral shadows flutter by as the rows of people walk past the man – unnoticed and alone – on the city sidewalk. By focusing on the structure of one man, a brief formal analysis of Maynard Dixon’s Forgotten Man (c. 1934) reveals the isolation of humanity juxtaposed against the crowded city through the use of golden ratio, color, shadows, size, and lines.

The man is the central focus of the painting because of the artist’s organic use of the golden ratio and lines. Through the use of golden ratio, the man is not in the center of the painting, thus drawing the viewer’s eye to concentrate on the man. The man’s shape is an elongated circle or oval. Although the left leg is almost a straight line, the curved shoulders and softly bent right leg rounds out the figure; the lines are flowing and rhythmic, thus making the man’s structure organic. The fluid motion of the contrasting tilt of the head downward and the opposite tilt upwards of the foot contributes to framing the man’s body. In addition to the golden ratio, the edge of the sidewalk is parallel to the mass of people behind the man. However, one row of legs matches diagonally with the man’s back, creating an elongated cross. X marks the spot, or in this instance, the main importance of the painting. Therefore, the combined use of the golden ratio and lines emphasizes the central figure: the isolated man.

Dixon uses colorful accents to juxtapose the muted colors of the whole of the painting. First, the man’s hair is flame-like with colors of gold and burnt-orange. The flame hair, which is formed by coming to a point, creates two diagonal lines or a triangle shape for the top of the head. The man’s hair is unnatural but accentuates the man’s hunched structure. Second, more than one-fourth of the painting reveals the beige sidewalk on the bottom right corner of the painting. Even the gutter in this corner has warm, autumnal colors, such as mauve, maroon, and teal. The gutter’s color is also unnatural, since gutters are usually full of repulsive trash and black slush. Dixon transforms a usually dirty city sidewalk into something beautiful and welcoming, yet no one sits beside the man. Therefore, the use of color and the empty space highlights the man’s isolation.

Through juxtaposing the man versus a simple fire hydrant, the size and color highlight the man’s isolation as well as his motionless state. This man is, of course, hunched, but even if he sat up straight, he would probably still be shorter than the hydrant beside him. This comparison of size leads one’s attention to other parallels between the man and the hydrant. For example, the hydrant’s teal color matches the same teal of the man’s jacket. Both the hydrant and jacket are offset by flecks of tan and brown, suggesting rust. While the portrayal of rust on the hydrant is naturalistic, it would be impossible for a man to have literal rust on his jacket. However, rust occurs through corrosion, which destructs of metals; usually, the rusty object is stationary, unused, or exposed for long amounts of time. Similarly, the man with rust on his shoulders suggests that he is stationary, just like the hydrant. Thus, the man’s static state juxtaposes with the suggestion of fluid, constant movement of feet behind him.

Through the use of shadows, the emphasis of the man’s shoes and face contrasts with the pedestrians’ shoes and lack of faces portrayed. The bottom of the man’s shoes appears worn-out. The top of the man’s right shoe, which is in the shadow, appears to look like everyone else’s shoes behind him. But the viewer can see the bottom of the man’s left shoe, which has tarnished lines and a worn, dark C-shaped mark. Some parts of the sole appear to be eroded off, since the colors contrast with light and dark coloring of the shadows. Likewise, the man’s pusillanimous face is the only one portrayed, since no other faces are shown from the people walking. There is no sense of camaraderie between the pedestrians, who only seem united in a robotic, continual march. In contrast, the man’s face is shown, although it is partially hidden in a shadow. His slanted, closed eyes are sunken, his eyebrows are furrowed deeply, and his thin lips are pursed shut. Yet, in the Gallery, the viewer is about eye-level with the man’s face. If this were to happen in reality, the viewer would be in the middle of the street, which is unrealistic due to the threat of oncoming traffic. But here, the viewer is provided with a different perspective; as a result, the viewer becomes connected with the man.

In conclusion, the juxtaposition of the man against his surroundings reveals that the man becomes the central figure. The title of the painting, Forgotten Man, could suggest a forlorn mood. The man’s warm, autumnal colors of his flame-like hair and teal, rusty jacket set against the empty space besides him emphasizes the paradox of man’s isolation and stationary status within a crowded, bustling city. Although the mood may be dejected, hope is also present. The formal elements of the painting connect the viewer to the man, suggesting the potential of a person to stop and notice those who go by unnoticed and alone in life.

Tuesday Tunes: “I Always Knew” by The Vaccines

Song: “I Always Knew”

Group: The Vaccines

Down, down in my bones
Somewhere I’d never ever known
Right at the back of my head
It hit me like a beam of light
Hit me like a hook of the right
And I could have fell to the floor
‘Cause you talk to me
and it comes off the wall
You talk to me
and it goes over my head
So let’s go to bed
before you say something real
Let’s go to bed before
you say how you feel

‘Cause it’s you
I always, always knew
I oh, I always knew
Oh, it’s you

I try my best to unwind
Nothing on my mind but you
Oblivious to all that I’ll owe
I’m hanging on
to what I don’t know
So let’s go to bed
before you say something real
Let’s go to bed
before you say how you feel

‘Cause it’s you
I always, always knew
I oh, I always knew
Oh, it’s you
Yeah it’s you
I always, always knew
I oh, I always knew
Oh, it’s you

Well it’s you
I always, always knew
I oh, I always knew
Oh, it’s you
I knew, oh I always knew
Yes I always knew
Oh, it’s you

image from here

The Questionable Possibility of Utopia in Nigerian Literature

In 1516, Sir Thomas More created a place quite unlike England called Utopia. This writing oscillates between satirical and darkly comical; therefore, we must recognize that there is in “Utopia’s construction and utilization . . . a tension between reality and fiction” (Yoran 3). In this satire, what is real versus what is fiction becomes blurry. However, the core idea of a utopia itself is problematic, since the very meaning of the word is “no place,” coming from “Greek ou not, no + topos place” (“Utopia, n.”). Even though utopia as a place seems impossible, for hundreds of years people have written about utopia and its horrific, perhaps more realistic, counterpart—dystopia.[1]

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All people continue to desire for utopia because they desire improved changes for their government, their community, and their nation. While there has been research on utopia and African American and Asian American,[2] South African,[3] and East African literature,[4] very little has been written critically concerning the Nigerian utopian dream. Utopian ideology connects with Nigerian writing differently from the Western tradition by addressing political and individual concerns of pre- and post-Independence Nigeria, using mythical and native language, dreaming, and showing how intolerable divisions are destructive. This paper will analyze the following three novels: Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God (pre-Independence, published in 1964), Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests (inbetween pre- and post-Independence, officially published in 1963), and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (post-Independence, published in 1991).

Nigeria has had a long, tumultuous history. Britain conquered and ruled Nigeria for over one hundred years. In 1851, British troops seized Lagos, but Nigeria did not become an official colony until 1861; however, the British were in Nigeria in the early 1800s because they were working to stop the slave trade (Oduwobi “From . . .”). On 1 October 1960, Nigeria gained independence from direct colonial rule, becoming “the biggest free black nation in the world” (Weaver 146). There are many religious and political divisions in Nigeria, and a civil war occurred for thirty months from 1967 to 1970. However, this war did not end all the conflict, since many military juntas or coups continued for several years (“Nigeria”). Despite political conflicts, “the arts in Nigeria underwent a surge in self-confidence. Initially, Nigeria led the way in West and East Africa” (Currey 8). Africa has a rich history of art and literature, and Nigeria has been a big contributor. The Nigerian people continue to celebrate the independence of their country with festivities since that eventful day.[5]

In Nigerian utopian novels, the difference between utopia and utopianism must be distinguished. According to critic Bill Ashcroft, while utopias are impossible, utopianism is “a universal human characteristic” (8). The settings of typical utopian novels (as well as dystopian novels) are often Western settings. For example, Plato’s Republic is in Greece; Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games is set in America; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is in England and New Mexico; George Orwell’s 1984 is in London. However, a visionary quest for a perfect society has occurred and continues to occur all over the world—not just in Western civilization. Nigerian writers, pre- and post-Independence, reveal their opinions and thoughts concerning a utopian possibility for their town, city, or country. Are Nigerian writers just copying or imitating the Western tradition of utopias to crystalize their own thoughts about a perfect society?

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To better answer this question, we must discuss mimicry. Homi Bhabha defines mimicry as “a complex strategy of reform, regulation, and discipline, which ‘appropriates’ the Other as it visualizes power” (122), suggesting that the colonial power attempts to control the Other through reform or regulation. The question could be posed as to whether the desire for utopia is a reflection of the Africans’ desire to imitate Westerners. Dress, language, education, and even religion are often associated with colonial mimicry, but “the desire for a reformed recognizable Other, as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite” (Bhabba 122). Therefore, if Nigerians imitate the utopian genre, they alter it just enough to make it their own. Additionally, all people dream, which becomes a necessity for survival during times of difficulty, such as juntas or extreme poverty. As Marxist critic Ernst Bloch says, “Daydreams focus that element in thought that constantly projects consciousness forward” (Ashcroft 9), pushing people into the future rather than focusing on fantasy. Therefore, desiring a perfect society is considered the norm in any society; yet Nigerian writers use the idea of dream in their utopias differently. For example, in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Okri uses magical realism when Azaro “dreams” to escape his present, unfortunate reality. Whether or not Azaro’s dreams are real, we meet talking cats, colorful spirits, enchanted albinos, and paranormal midgets. The book ends with this stunning line: “A dream can be the highest point of a life” (Okri 500). Life is difficult, especially for those who are poor, but dreams enable a young Nigerian boy to survive.

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Dreams for the future are also conveyed through telling stories of the past. Ashcroft argues that African literature differs from other utopian writing for two reasons: first, it “[recovers] a forgotten history” (9) and, second, it “[reimagines] the ‘past in the present’ through the kind of exuberant mythic language deployed by Ben Okri” (10). In The Famished Road, Okri shows the readers how these two reasons are quite interconnected. The narrator, a young boy named Azaro, is an abiku, or spirit child, born into poverty in Nigeria. Constantly, Azaro is being kidnapped by spirits or dying. One night Dad tells Azaro a story, combining family history and folklore, about the King of the Road, who required humans to give him sacrifices of food. The poor were unable to continue offering the sacrifices, and the King would become angry, eating people who traveled. One day the people gathered all the poison they could find and put it in the food offering. The only person to escape was “our great-great-great-grandfather” because “[h]e knew the secret of making himself invisible” (Orki 260). He saw the King of the Road eat himself up, leaving only the stomach behind. When the rain came, the stomach melted, forming the current roads. Dad concludes, “He is still hungry, and he will always be hungry. That is why there are so many accidents in the world” (261). This example combines the present, through the act of storytelling, and the past, by telling a story of an ancestor and explaining why something happens. Near the end of the novel, after Dad almost dies but escapes death, he tells Azaro that Nigeria is an abiku nation that “refuses to stay till we have made propitious sacrifice and displayed our serious intent to bear the weight of a unique destiny” (494). Saying that Nigeria or the road is hungry is a personification, since neither Nigeria nor the road could literally eat people. Rather than being hungry for food, post-Independence Nigeria is hungry for something else—for the people to remember the past in the present state of the nation. Only then can change occur. When political leaders remember that, Nigeria can stop being an abiku nation, as long as wrongs finally become right.

There is another essence of Nigerian utopian dream: “the radically new is always embedded in and transformed by the past” (Ashcroft 9). We see this idea in Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests because the connection between the past and present is real when the Nigerian community celebrates their independence. The characters include the Town Dwellers, who are living, and the Guests of Honour, a dead married couple.

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The Half-Child, who is the baby of the dead mother, is symbolic of the present/past collision. Demoke, a living townsperson, decides to return the Half-Child to the Dead mother; by making this decision, Demoke symbolizes the new, independent nation that is entrenched in and changed by the past, as symbolized by the dead Guests of Honour. When Forrest Head, the magical leader, speaks to his assistant over Demoke’s action, Forrest Head contemplates, “I have tortured awareness of their souls [i.e., the dead], that perhaps, only perhaps, in new beginnings . . . does Demoke know the meaning of his act?” (71). Critic Simon Simonse claims that African authors “turn their backs on the African past and look for alternatives in the African society as they find it” (482). However, readers do not see any “back turning” but rather a literal confrontation with the past colliding with the present. A person, a community, even a country can desire a new beginning, yet society must not forget the old customs and traditions, horrors and pitfalls of the country. Of course, the ending of this play is ambiguous, and the future state of this nation is unclear. The new leaders must remember the injustices that occurred to the poor and those without power or prestige. If the new Nigerian leaders are not transformed by the past or fail to recognize the ways the past affect them, the nation will suffer, and the dream for utopia will quickly turn into a reality of a dystopian society.

Dreaming is not always hoping and imagining; Nigerians actively work for a better future by utilizing and adapting the resources the colonizer offers—education and religion. In their quest for utopia, Nigerian authors write “to engage power and to imagine change” (Ashcroft 13). For sixteenth-century humanists, More included, education was important for both low and high classes alike. For example, all of More’s Utopian people “devote themselves to the freedom and culture of the mind. For in that, they think, is the real happiness of life” (606). In other words, in order to gain happiness and freedom, one must be educated. Therefore, in the Western tradition, gaining knowledge allowed people to achieve power and create change in order to create the perfect society. In contrast, with Nigerian literature, the colonized Nigerians use education to engage with the colonial powers and to anticipate change that could occur in the future—a powerful Nigerian nation with authoritative citizens or even a Nigeria free from colonial rule. According to Dr. Gaurav Desai, mastering the culture of Englishness occurred when African writers began to re-think their relationship with the colonizer. As a result, the colonized wanted more of the assets of colonialism, like education, but not the horrors of colonial appropriation and other atrocities.

In Arrow of God, characters seek to engage with power by mastering the culture of Englishness. Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Ulu and leader of the community, sends his son, Oduche, to the Christian school to learn the teachings of the white colonizer. Ezeulu confesses that he sent Oduche “to learn the white man’s wisdom” (Achebe 42). Although Ezeulu cannot remove the white presence from Nigeria, he can use his son to fight against colonizer. Then Ezeulu’s decision influences the community to send their children, as well: “many people—some of them very important—began to send their children to school” (215).

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The word send is used, in connection with going to school or communication, twenty-seven times in this novel, suggesting an evolving process—when something is sent, something must be left behind or lost (e.g., you send a letter but never see that piece of paper again). While Ezeulu sends Oduche off, Ezeulu does not physically lose his son, who still lives at home; however, his son tries to kill the sacred python, indicating that Oduche has lost his tradition and religion. Ezeulu has lost his son, spiritually, to the colonizer. With More’s Western Utopia, when the people engage with power and imagine change, nothing important is lost (e.g., they still have their religion, families, and culture), and everything is gained (e.g., their perfected society, great education, no war, and improved work).

In contrast, with pre-Independence writers, engaging with power means that while the older generations may be unable to change, the children and future generations are able to engage with and master the culture of Englishness. Nonetheless, the younger generation changes in this process, becoming Anglicized Nigerians rather than pure Nigerians. With post-Independence writers, the current generation uses their education to bring themselves together. Because Nigeria has over two hundred languages, “British colonialism . . . helped foster a new national, though fractious, identity” (Richards 215). For example, in A Dance of the Forests, some sense of the past is lost: “Proverb to bones and silence” (74) is repeated hauntingly throughout the play by the old man, Agboreko. While proverbs may have lost their truth through the passing of time, all the characters, no matter their background, use the language English; through communication, even if English is the language in common for all the various groups, there is hope for a greater understanding among all the Nigerian people. Nigerians use English to benefit themselves, creating a more unified, although still imperfect, national identity.

In Nigerian utopian novels, the relation between the individual and the collective can become blurry; utopia is an impossibility, but both the individual and the collective may dream for utopianism and yet carry out that dream in different ways. According to Ashcroft, “while the equality of the individuals in the collective is a fundamental principle of utopian thought, the collective is always inimical to individual fulfillment” (11). In both Western and Nigerian tradition, the quest for utopia endures, while the fear about utopia dissolving into dystopia also continues. While we have acknowledged earlier in the paper that the concept of creating a utopia is seen in Western and Nigerian literature, it differs in that for Western writers, the look is external—the individual forces society to conform to him or her. For example, in Utopia, if a person did not conform to More’s ideal society, that person would become a slave or would be kicked out of the country. In Hunger Games, President Snow, the dictator of the Capitol, coerces the districts (the Subaltern, or lower classes) to conform to his will, which represents as the government and its law, forcing children to kill one another in the. Agency is implausible and threatening—a subject must act in accordance with the individual in charge and any deviance is considered heinous.

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In contrast, Nigerian utopian individuals have the new potential of choice more readily available because of their independent state. Nigerians can look internally to change themselves for the better of society in order to create harmony. In Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests, the ending is ambiguous—the future could become dystopian or utopian; however, when Demoke chooses to recognize the Half-Child, which could symbolize the recognition of horrors from the past and of retribution, there is considerable hope for the future of Nigeria. However, when characters in Nigerian novels do not look internally but remain selfish, utopia turns quickly to dystopia. In The Famished Road, neither the Party of the Poor nor the Party of the Rich are interested in the lower classes because they are too busy seeking power, prominence, and money.[6] Azaro’s Dad “conjured an image of a country in which he was invisible ruler and in which everyone would have the highest education, in which everyone must learn music and mathematics and at least five world languages” (Okri 409). However, since Dad cannot compete with the two parties, he is unable to make his utopia for their Nigerian community to come to pass. One night, Dad explains his hopes for the grand changes in their community, and Azaro explains what he says: “‘We have to clear garbage from our street before we clear it from our minds,’ [Dad] said, echoing something he had hear in one of the books” (Okri 410). Although Dad tries to gather the community and clean up the streets, the people never really come together as Dad had imagined. Perhaps they feel that change is impossible, that hope is not worth having.

The biggest problem with this inability to work together is related to class divisions. Literary theorist Gayatri Spivak questions whether the Subaltern can truly speak and explains that the Subaltern “acted in the interests of the [dominant groups] and not in conformity to interests corresponding truly to their own social being” (27). What is the solution that will enable the Subaltern to speak, to enable a better, if not a utopian, society to exist?

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Desmond Tutu’s description of Ubuntu proves insightful. With Ubuntu, we “recognize our common humanity, that we do belong together, that our destinies are bound up in one another’s, that we can be free only together, that we can survive only together, that we can be human only together” (Tutu 24). Therefore, if Nigerians truly followed Ubuntu, a more utopian-like society would exist. Without the government party leaders’ imposition and corruption, the poor would not live in pathetic housing, slowly starving to death, such as in The Famished Road. Although Ezeulu becomes crazy at the end of Arrow of God, Achebe could be suggesting that Ezeulu’s inflexibility as a ruler of his people was an incorrect way to govern. What Nigeria, as well as the rest of the world, really needs are social leaders and government officials who remember the Subaltern, listen to how citizens feel, and then show Ubuntu to all.[7]

In conclusion, hope is a universal aspect of all people and all nations. Nigerians may speak different languages, believe in different religions, or have different dreams, but Nigerian writers show how their people hope for their nation’s improvement. During the twentieth century, science fiction has been the dominant form for writing about utopia; however, Nigerian writers are not merely using mimicry to copy the Western tradition of utopia. Nigerian utopian thinking is distinct from other utopian/dystopian genres because Nigerian writers show readers “their distinct form of cultural and political hope” (Ashcroft 8). Utopia has become more focused on an idea, rather than a specific location: “Utopia is no longer a place but the spirit of hope itself, the essence of desire for a better world” (Ashcroft 8). We cannot know for certain the future of Nigerian utopias, but we recognize that if selfishness, greed, and hate abide in a society, whether it be Western or Nigerian, the future looks dim. However, if kindness, selflessness, and forgiveness abound in a community, then there is a greater possibility for hope for a promising future.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. New York: Anchor Books, 1974. Print.

Ashcroft, Bill. “The Ambiguous Necessity of Utopia: Post-Colonial Literatures and the Persistence of Hope.” Social Alternatives 28.3 (2009): 8–14. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

Barrett, Stanley R. “Sex and Conflict in an African Utopia.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 13.1 (1982): 19­­–35. PsycINFO. Web. 28. Mar. 2015.

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man.” Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. J. Rutherford. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990. 222–37. Print.

Cartwright, Marguerite. “Nigerian Independence.” Negro History Bulletin 24 (1961): 99­–103. EBSCO. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.

Currey, James. “Literary Publishing after Nigerian Independence: Mbari as Celebration.” Research in African Literatures 44.2 (2013): 8­–16. EBSCO. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.

Danzieger, K. “Ideology and Utopia in South Africa: A Methodological Contribution to the Sociology of Knowledge.” British Journal of Sociology 14.1 (1963): 59–76. Humanities Source. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Desai, Gaurav. English 397R. Brigham Young University. Provo, 20 March 2015.

Erritouni, Ali. “Apartheid Inequality and Postapartheid Utopia in Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People.” Research in African Literatures 37.4 (2006): 68­–84. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Joo, Hee-Jung. “Speculative nations: Racial utopia and dystopia in twentieth-century African American and Asian American literature.” Dissertation Abstracts International Section A 68. (2008). PsycINFO. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Leman, Peter. “Law and Transnational Utopias in East African Fiction. Interventions: The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 16.6 (2014): 818­–836. EBSCO. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

More, Thomas. Utopia. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W.Norton, 2012. Print.

“Nigeria.” Nigeria Embassy. 2012. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.

Oduwobi, Tunde. “From Conquest to Independence: The Nigerian Colonial Experience.” Historia

Actual On-Line 25 (2011): 19–29. EBSCO. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.

Okri, Ben. The Famished Road. London: Doubleday, 1991. Print

Richards, Sandra L. “Nigerian Independence Onstage: Responses from ‘Second Generation’ Playwrights.” Theatre Journal 39 (1987): 215­–227. EBSCO. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.

Simonse, Simon. “African literature between nostalgia and utopia: African novels since 1953 in the light of the modes-of-production approach.” Research in African Literatures 13 (1972): 451­­–487. Humanities Source. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Soyinka, Wole. A Dance of the Forests. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Eds. Bill Ashcroft, et al. The Post Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Stieber, Zachary. “Nigerian Independence Day 2014: Quotes and Sayings for Nigeria Holiday.” Epoch Times 30 Sept. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.

Tayob, Abdulkader. “Islamic Politics in South Africa between Identity and Utopia.” South African Historical Journal 60.4 (2008): 583–599. Humanities Source. Web. 28. Mar. 2015.

Tutu, Desmond. God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time. London: Doubleday, 2005. Print.

“Utopia, n.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Weaver, Edward Kimmons. “What Nigerian Independence Means.” Phylon 22 (1961): 146–159. EBSCO. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.

Yoran, Hanan. “More’s ‘Utopia’ and Erasmus’ ‘No-Place.’” English Literary Renaissance 35.1 (2005): 3–30. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.


[1] When “dystopian novels” is searched online, there are 3,240 results with but only 85 results with the website for Barnes & Noble. In contrast, when “utopian novels” is searched, the numbers drop—1,946 results with but only 37 results with Barnes & Noble. Although these specific numbers could fluctuate, the overall trend seems to show a greater preference for dystopian novels in the year 2015.

[2] Hee-Jung Joo’s dissertation analyzed African American and Asian American literature, finding three main trends: (1) The multiracial utopias that express the contested relationship between formal and substantive citizenship throughout the twentieth century; (2) The utopian longings that stress the mid-century conflict between domestic racism and global expansionism; and (3) The contemporary dystopian scenarios that depict a US eventually destroyed by the racial contradictions of late capitalism.

[3] Ali Erritouni explores the South African writer, Nadine Gordimer’s, work: “[Gordimer] trusts that art can be effectively marshaled in the effort to resist the abuses of power” (81). Additionally, K. Danzieger’s article is a sociological study of what is happening in South Africa: “[I]n the case of the ideology of apartheid there arises the spectre of a totally ‘false consciousness’ whose every cognition must necessarily be wrong” (76). Finally, Abdulkader Tayob claims, “Islamic politics in South Africa inscribed an idealistic vision for the future. It promoted a utopian vision that was by definition unattainable” (584).

[4] BYU Professor Peter Leman explores the question “Where is the law in utopia?” in different East African literature in his paper “Law and Transnational Utopias in East African Fiction.

[5] On the one-year anniversary of Nigerian Independence, there were many celebrations and festivities. Although Queen Elizabeth II was not in attendance, she had this message read on her behalf: “I am confident that Nigeria will play a worthy role in the council of Nations and remain true to the high ideals of friendship and cooperation so manifest today, making a positive contribution to the peace and prosperity of mankind . . . .” (Cartwright 101).

[6] Chinua Achebe said, “Nigeria is what it is because its leaders are not what they should be” (Stieber “Nigerian . . .”).

[7] Susan Rice, the US National Security Advisor, said, “Nigeria has played a constructive role in peacekeeping in various parts of West Africa. But unless and until Nigeria itself is democratic and respects human rights, it too may well be a source of much greater instability as political repression limits the ability of the people of Nigeria to achieve their full potential” (Stieber “Nigerian . . .”).