Eye to I: Professor Leads International Exploration of Visual Links to American Identity

Posted March 26, 2018 in Faculty, Master of Visual and Critical Studies, Painting

What does it mean to be an American today? And more importantly, how does our understanding of our collective identity impact the rest of the world?

To both seek and put forth answers to these questions, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) Professor Diane Zeeuw, joined educators, students, activists, and artists from around the globe at the American Studies Association of Korea’s recent American Studies Conference in Seoul, South Korea. Guided by the theme of “The Changing Contours of American Identity,” presenters aimed to provide insight on the ever-evolving complexities of Americans’ self-perceptions in light of the nation’s contentious political and cultural climate.

For Zeeuw, who serves as chair of both the Painting and Master of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies programs at KCAD, the story begins, in large part, with images. Her presentation, “Performing Masculinity: Working Class White Men and the Iconic Photographs of Lewis Hine,” reframed Hine’s “Men at Work” series through the lens of gender studies. Seen this way, Zeeuw posits, the photographs present conflicted and problematic notions of masculinity.

old photograph of two men balancing from a crane hook high atop a skyscraper that's being constructed"Young structural workers high up on skyscraper" by Lewis Hine (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Zeeuw argues that these images can guide us in understanding white, working-class men–a demographic that has long played a pivotal role in American society. They do so by revealing how internalized values of self-preservation can shape behavior and identity.

“Many white American males view themselves and their working-class fathers as having constructed the monuments of capitalism, and thus feel entitled to a kind of industrial inheritance,” says Zeeuw. “They resent the loss of identity-sustaining manual labor, yet fail to completely grasp the double bind supporting this model of manliness.”

Old photograph of a man working on a pottery throwing wheel in a factory(above): "Mallard Hilton, a kiln placer in Southern Potteries, Elroy, Tennessee" by Lewis Hine (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons); (below): "Arthur Roberts and Sam Mynatt drilling in lateral test shaft for examination of substrata at base of Norris Dam" by Lewis Hine (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Old photograph of men drilling into rock in a mining shaft

Political polarization, Zeeuw believes, is largely driven by a widespread unwillingness to empathize with those whose beliefs differ markedly from our own.

“If we hope to understand the current political climate within the U.S. we cannot simply dismiss the attitudes and beliefs of Donald Trump’s base,” Zeeuw says. “Rather, we must seek to understand the mythic narratives defining, propelling, and sustaining it—recognizing that such stories are more about feeling than history.”

Old photograph of man at work in a factory"Millville, New Jersey - Textiles. Millville Manufacturing Co." by Lewis Hine (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Performing Masculinity” grew out of research Zeeuw conducted in preparation for a new KCAD graduate seminar course: Representation of the Other. To her, all forms of inquiry, whether it’s teaching, writing, painting, or conducting scholarly research, exist “in a mutually supportive manner.”

“Oftentimes a topic arising within one of my seminars prompts further investigation leading to a formal paper/presentation/publication,” she explains, “At other times an issue or concern may arise while researching a specific topic for an invitational publication, thus infusing both graduate studio courses as well as seminars with new perspectives.

The more conversations she can help drive outside of the classroom, Zeeuw believes, the more meaningful the dialogues inside of it will be.

“I am intractably curious and attracted to others who share this compulsion to ask questions—irrespective of where such inquiry might lead.”  

Learn more about KCAD’s Master of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies program.

Learn more about KCAD’s Painting program.