Visualizing the War on Christmas: Acknowledging the Pre-Christian Origins of Winter Festival Imagery

Fox news website screen shot with frame of Bill O'Reilly on camera with guest discussing the War On Christmas

Image Credit: Fox News

Every holiday season conservative political activists trying to maintain Christian supremacy in the United States bemoan an alleged "War On Christmas." According to their conspiracy theories, evil secularlists lurk behind every corner, ready to pounce on any expression of the Christian Christmas tradition. For the activists, store employees who wish customers a "happy holiday" are not trying to be inclusive. Rather, these cheerless corporate-mandated greetings serve as another boot of tyranny standing on the neck of American Christendom.

Destiny Made Manifest in a Pattern of Stars

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This could be the new flag of the United States of America. Fifty-one stars. In November 2012, Puerto Rico voted in a referendum to become the fifty-first state of the USA. The measure now awaits approval from the U.S. Congress. Whether the representatives of the fifty states will invite in Puerto Rico, currently a U.S. territory, depends, of course, on a number of factors: culture, taxes, how it would change the political dynamics of the country, among others. But there's another big deciding influence at play here, though it is less tangible, and that is how a fifty-first state would change the appearance of the U.S. flag. Why would that matter? Because the arrangement of the stars on the flag has everything to do with belief in Manifest Destiny. 

Archiving the Past, Archiving the Future

A stylized image of Bel Geddes' _Futurama_ exhibition.

Image Credit: Laura Thain

Archives are by definition past-oriented.  The very act of “archiving” renders an object an artifact of a specific past, although its orientation within that past depends on the disciplinary practice of the archivist.  20th century archival studies have made considerable movements toward standardization, and alongside this standardization of archival methodologies comes an expansion of that which we consider worthy of being archived.  Thus, we no longer operate under the assumption that 20th century archives will be composed exclusively of objects from a distant, exclusively white Western patriarchal past—we compose queer archives, postcolonial archives, feminist archives, and, perhaps, in the case of Bel Geddes, even archives of the future.   Join me as I explore the idea of a future archive and its relationship to the archival ethos of the Harry Ransom Center, in part by exploring exhibition visitor’s own “visions” of the future.

Image Database Review: New York City Department of Records Online Image Gallery

view of Brooklyn Bridge looking toward Manhattan

Image Credit: Joseph Shelderfer 

During November and December I'll be devoting some blog posts to reviews of image archives recently added to the viz. "Images" resource page. First up is the gallery from the New York City Department of Records released in April 2012. The archive "provides free and open research access to over 800,000 items digitized from the Municipal Archives’ collections, including photographs, maps, motion-pictures and audio recordings." It is from the research perspective that I approach this review. Alan Taylor, at The Atlantic's photography blog In Focus, included some highlights he found while browsing the archive (warning: images include evidence photography from homicide crime scenes). Browsing through the images is certainly a good way to spend some time (perhaps too much time), but the archive is also organized through a series of collections that can help the viewer sift through the nearly one million images from the Big Apple.

The Secret History of Lines

A photograph by Colin Stearns

Image Credit: Colin Stearns

With 24 hours to go, media outlets projecting the outcome of election day are covered in geographical maps of states and counties painted starkly in red and blue.  I’ve enjoyed the responses of armchair intellectuals like Randall Munroe, who playfully reinterprets the red/blue divide to create a complex and comprehensive visual history of the Republican and Democratic parties.  The proliferation of regional and ideological divides across multiple media this week urged me to explore two important questions in visual rhetoric: What does it mean to visualize a geographical boundary?  And what does it mean to visualize an invisible line?  (I would be remiss not to mention the enormous amount of border studies that exist in postcolonial and Anglophone literature and criticism—but today on viz I will try to confine myself to a discussion of the visualization of intranational borders.)  Here to help me is the photography of Colin Stearns, Assistant Professor of Photography at Parsons. Stearns' current project is photographing the Mason-Dixon line in order to capture "this border of cultural distinction at the places of its occurence."  Each of his photographs contain the invisible interstate line somewhere within their composition.  I'll also put Stearns in dialogue with William Byrd II, the 18th century commissioner of the colonial line between North Carolina and Virginia. 

Dressing to Dissent at the United Nations

Ahmadinejad Sans Tie at the UN

Image Credit: United Nations webtv.un.org

Almost every male speaker to the September Summit of the General Assembly of the United Nations wore a suit and tie. It is easy to overlook this fact, so widespread is the convention, so rare the defiance. But what heads of state wear in front of one another shows something peculiar about the modern nation state. Leaders are, by and large, drawn from the cultural and economic elite. What all this suit-and-tie wearing indicates, however, is that the ruling class of the modern nation-state must subscribe, or seem to subscribe, to middle class or “business” virtues, like hard work, entrepreneurship, merit, and self-effacement. When a male leader chooses not to don a suit and tie, a choice made by President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (pictured above), he is really saying something: but what, exactly, is he saying?

“Colorizing” the Black-and-White Past

Black and White Lincoln Next to Colorized One

Image Credit: Sanna Dullaway 

Abraham Lincoln has been colored in by means of computer software. There are more color photographs of the past today than there have ever been before: and that is because people, like artist Sanna Dullaway, are using Photoshop to colorize black and white ones. In this post, I wonder why.

Representing a Revolution in Government and Medicine -- Unchaining the Insane

Pinel unchaining the insane 1849

                                                                                   Image Credit: Archives of General Pyschiatry

When historians seek gathering metaphors to describe the French Revolution--with its violent upheavals, experiments in re-arranging calendar time, and, of course, the demands for liberty and equality that underwrote these events--they rarely describe the atmosphere or environment of the period as particularly stable or "sane." And yet the work of Philippe Pinel--a progressive French physician who helped lay the groundwork for a major shift in mental health treatment--has been nonetheless remembered as a figurative crystallization of the Revolution's lofty, humanist goals--goals which in turn influenced the trajectory of ninenteenth century psychiatry. Today, I seek to briefly explore how 19th century visual re-enactments of Pinel's participation in a highly mythicized (and mostly apocryphyl) event--a ritualized "unchaining" of the captive patients-- were used to remind French citizens of the virtues of republican government during times of national upheaval.

Don't Miss Your Chance--"El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa"

El Anatsui: Blanton Promo with Oasis

Image credit: The Blanton Musuem of Art

El Anatsui’s art is haunting. The shimmering bottle tops of his most recent pieces, meticulously netted and woven with the help of his young crew, speak of previous uses, prior intents, and pasts that pummel and prod. A retrospective exhibition of the Ghanaian artist’s 30-year career is currently on view at UT’s own Blanton Museum of Art. The exhibition, “El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa,” is a wonderful investigation of the tangible ways that the past weaves itself into our present.

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