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Deception in Early American Art and Politics

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Abstract:

In the early republic, "deception" is both a political and an aesthetic category. In politics, deception was a highly topical issue for a society that has known the value of pretense at least since colonists disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. Once the United States had become a political reality, early American elites became increasingly worried about the possibility of successful dissimulation as the young nation was undergoing a gradual ideological transition from a republican to a liberal-individualist order, as its citizens quarreled about Chesterfieldian civility, and as a second, Jacobin revolution on American soil was looming on the horizon. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 bear ample witness to those fears of deception.

In the realm of art, deception names both what art does (fictions, trompe l'oeil paintings, and Patience Wright's wax sculptures all in their different ways deceive their recipients) and characterizes its subject matter (sentimental seducers, picaresque anti-heroes, and gothic villains are all masters of deception). Yet in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the deceptive nature of art was not only an issue negotiated by both American producers of works of art and their recipients (most notably in the famous anti-fiction movement); it was also a central topic in the field of aesthetics that had begun to emerge somewhat earlier on the other side of the Atlantic. Inspired by the empiricist turn in the arts and sciences initiated by Locke, Bacon, and Hobbes, early aestheticians as different in their sensibilities as David Hume, Edmund Burke, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, and Immanuel Kant took human perception seriously and studied works of art as media that contain and mediate sensuous cognition. Yet even the scholar who coined the term 'aesthetics' and defined it as "the science of sensuous cognition" (Baumgarten) was unsure about whether perception could be a reliable guide to knowledge and truth: sensuous perception, he maintained, was clear but confused (clara et confusa) and could therefore always deceive us.

Rather than attempting to explain deception in art as a response to contemporaneous social and political configurations (or vice versa), my paper uses "deception" as a notion that helps me bring two areas of scholarly activity into a dialogue that are all too often studied in isolation: aesthetics--here defined as the study of both human perception and the nature and function of art--and politics. My discussion beings with a crucial pre-revolutionary figure: the controversial wax sculptor Patience Wright, who not only created effigies that were so verisimilar that Abigail Adams was deceived into thinking they were real human beings, but who allegedly also engaged in political deception as an American spy in London. Post-revolutionary artists I will discuss include the writers Susanna Rowson, Charles Brockden Brown, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and the painters Charles Willson Peale and his son, Raphaelle Peale.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p504509_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Schweighauser, Philipp. "Deception in Early American Art and Politics" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, Oct 20, 2011 <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p504509_index.html>

APA Citation:

Schweighauser, P. , 2011-10-20 "Deception in Early American Art and Politics" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p504509_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Review Method: Peer Reviewed
Abstract: In the early republic, "deception" is both a political and an aesthetic category. In politics, deception was a highly topical issue for a society that has known the value of pretense at least since colonists disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. Once the United States had become a political reality, early American elites became increasingly worried about the possibility of successful dissimulation as the young nation was undergoing a gradual ideological transition from a republican to a liberal-individualist order, as its citizens quarreled about Chesterfieldian civility, and as a second, Jacobin revolution on American soil was looming on the horizon. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 bear ample witness to those fears of deception.

In the realm of art, deception names both what art does (fictions, trompe l'oeil paintings, and Patience Wright's wax sculptures all in their different ways deceive their recipients) and characterizes its subject matter (sentimental seducers, picaresque anti-heroes, and gothic villains are all masters of deception). Yet in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the deceptive nature of art was not only an issue negotiated by both American producers of works of art and their recipients (most notably in the famous anti-fiction movement); it was also a central topic in the field of aesthetics that had begun to emerge somewhat earlier on the other side of the Atlantic. Inspired by the empiricist turn in the arts and sciences initiated by Locke, Bacon, and Hobbes, early aestheticians as different in their sensibilities as David Hume, Edmund Burke, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, and Immanuel Kant took human perception seriously and studied works of art as media that contain and mediate sensuous cognition. Yet even the scholar who coined the term 'aesthetics' and defined it as "the science of sensuous cognition" (Baumgarten) was unsure about whether perception could be a reliable guide to knowledge and truth: sensuous perception, he maintained, was clear but confused (clara et confusa) and could therefore always deceive us.

Rather than attempting to explain deception in art as a response to contemporaneous social and political configurations (or vice versa), my paper uses "deception" as a notion that helps me bring two areas of scholarly activity into a dialogue that are all too often studied in isolation: aesthetics--here defined as the study of both human perception and the nature and function of art--and politics. My discussion beings with a crucial pre-revolutionary figure: the controversial wax sculptor Patience Wright, who not only created effigies that were so verisimilar that Abigail Adams was deceived into thinking they were real human beings, but who allegedly also engaged in political deception as an American spy in London. Post-revolutionary artists I will discuss include the writers Susanna Rowson, Charles Brockden Brown, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and the painters Charles Willson Peale and his son, Raphaelle Peale.


Similar Titles:
Deception at the Ballot: The Disparaging Effects of Political Participation on African-Americans

The political and social mobilization of African Americans: Analyzing the political and social effects of African American media and personalities on their listeners

American Political Thought and American Political Development


 
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