“Imagined memory” and stereotypes as side-effects of Civil War-era art?

Posted on November 13, 2008 by

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In response to a comment yesterday, I wrote:

… when you have art that is created, not out of interpretation of real events, but based on how an artist imagines an historical person may have reacted in an unreal or imagined scenario, then you have an “imagined presentation.” Is it, at that point really historical art, or over the top in speculation? The fact of the matter is that some of those who view the art may well see it as something depicting a real event (and thus, like it or not, this is “imagined memory”). This has implications on down the road; both in the way that the “beholders” interpret the art and the way that they [again, the "beholders"] convey meaning in what they relate to others about the particular historical character in the imagined art and about “imagined events.”

An image of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the 1853 edition.My focus was on historical personalities…real people…in imagined scenes. I wasn’t even thinking of how fictional characters portrayed in art might influence minds in an equally powerful way. Actually, it’s funny, but for some reason I was thinking about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the stereotypes that it generated in the minds of readers. No, it isn’t wall art (though the many covers created for the book over time might be considered works of art), but for some reason the book just came to mind. Then, this evening, while I was looking online for some early Civil War artwork (in preparation for another post), I found a book (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as Visual Culture, by Jo-Ann Morgan) that focuses specifically on stereotypes generated as a result of the book and how the subsequent fall-out in art (among other things) was nearly as significant as the book. The description follows:

By personalizing the experiences of American slaves, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a profound effect on public attitudes toward slavery on the eve of the Civil War, but Stowe’s narrative was not the whole story. Jo-Ann Morgan now reveals how prints and paintings of Uncle Tom and other characters in the novel also shaped public perceptions and how this visual culture had its own impact on history.

Through illustrations in various editions of the book, advertisements for stage productions, paintings of favorite scenes, and even sheet music for Tom-inspired songs, Stowe’s work took on a visual as well as a textual existence. Morgan explores the rich visual discourse generated by Uncle Tom’s Cabin within the context of evolving social conditions and political events of nineteenth-century America to show how images associated with the text came to have lives of their own.

Although Uncle Tom is a recognized icon of American culture, this is the first book to concentrate on the visual discourse involving the character, interpreting a period of American sociocultural history that has been neglected by art historians. Morgan shows how these iconic images offered the country a means of both representing and reinventing its slave past. By examining illustrations by Hammatt Billings and George Cruikshank and the work of painters such as Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Thomas Satterwhite Noble, she breaks down boundaries between high art and popular culture to demonstrate how these distinctions helped validate the views of elite producers of culture.

Morgan argues that the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin made it dangerous to prevailing attitudes and the institutional structures kept in place by them, as pictures joined words to challenge patriarchy. She shows how subsequent visual strategies were used to coax the subversive potential of Stowe’s work back within accepted boundaries, as imaging of black people was involved in a cultural backlash against decades of abolition propaganda. Pictures of figures once read as sympathetic were redefined into an alternative propaganda to reinforce white supremacy and put limits on African Americans’ access to citizenship after emancipation.

Despite the simultaneous existence of an urban-based, business-class clientele for paintings and a more popular audience for book illustrations, show posters, and sheet music, Morgan shows that representations of blacks tended to reinforce social hierarchies and protect established regimes. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as Visual Culture is a compelling reexamination of an American icon—and a persuasive case study in how representations of African Americans change in response to social and political agendas.

Now, I just found this book online tonight, so apart from the description, I can’t vouch for the content, but the argument appears to be sound. Since the artwork that sprang from a book reflected stereotypes, what stereotypes are formed (or have the potential for being formed) from “imagined memory” of the Civil War reflected in contemporary works of art?

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