Defining us: The American Experience

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Defining US: The American Experience

FCPS Teaching American History Grant


Subject: ___AP US History________________________ Grade: ____11_________________

Prepared by: _Brian Heintz________________________ School: _Westfield HS __________

Title or Topic: __Art of Cynicism _________________________________________________

Instructional Time: __45-90 minutes ______________________________________________

  1. Essential Learning: (Big picture/concept to be learned.)

The student will analyze selected pieces of art and infer how they reflect a sense of disillusionment, and/or cynicism in American society in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal. When the lesson is complete, the students will be able to place cultural attitudes of recent generations of Americans within a historical context. They will be able to recall how art and/or literature and films mirrors a distrust, uneasiness, or cynicism from some Americans about how they view their government and its role.
This should not be an introductory lesson using American art. Much of the analytical skills that allow it to work should be developed with students using simpler pieces. I use this as the culminating lesson that uses American art. Previous lessons include topics on: Colonial Regional Art and Architecture, Neoclassical Architecture (Post-Revolutionary), Art of Manifest Destiny (Hudson River School), and WPA (Depression-Era) art.

  1. Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL):

VUS.14 The student will demonstrate knowledge of economic, social, cultural, and political developments in the contemporary United States.
3. Fairfax County Program of Studies (POS):

United States and Virginia History

12.1.G Explain the causes for, responses to, and the results of, the United States' involvement in Vietnam.

13.1.F Analyze the ways that popular literature, art, and music reflected social issues and trends in this period.

14.2.A Define the idea of the “American Dream” and how it has evolved from the 17th century to the 21st century.

  1. National History Standard (Historical Thinking Standard)

1. Chronological Thinking
3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation 
5. Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-

  1. Learning Strategy(s) Objectives:

3. Make Inferences.

7. Group/Classify

10. Cooperate

11. Use Imagery

  1. Connection to TAH grant:

Use of primary sources, in this case art work.


  1. Assessment:

Students will be given worksheets designed to assess their analysis of images and the extent to which they recognize the changes in American society and attitudes in the aftermath of the events of the 1960s and 70s. (See attached) Individually, they will complete the worksheets. In small groups and as a class they shall de-brief and establish generalizations.
I usually conduct this lesson after I have completed a unit on the Cold War/Vietnam, but before covering the 1970s and the Watergate Scandal along with contemporary American views/attitudes towards the role of government.

  1. Instructional Strategies:

NOTE: The lesson works best using 3-5 pieces to examine. The lesson can be expanded, using additional or different examples of cynical art. However, the point of the lesson is to allow students to see social attitudes reflected in the art. Too many pieces and too much time focus the topic to the art itself.

  1. Introduction:

The lesson is introduced through a projection of selections from the 1961 JFK Inauguration speech. The teacher will solicit students for familiarity with the speech, the event, and the individual. (It certainly would not hurt the tone of the lesson to solicit the speaker’s fate from the students.) The teacher should conclude the introduction by asking students to assess the attitude or tone of the speech. Be sure that students are left with an understanding that it reflects optimism: one that was shared by much of the American public at that time. Would it last?

I normally show a video clip (available from a number of sources, including the American Experience: The Kennedys) of the speech along with a printed handout for the students. After we establish the positive tone of the speech and the general concept of optimism, I ask students what they would think if they heard that speech from George W. Bush (or other recent presidents). Would they believe him? Would he speak for them as Americans? When the students inevitably answer in the negative, I establish for them the idea that a majority of the Americans at the time did (despite his own close and controversial election). At that point, I can solicit student opinions as to what changed. After hearing their ideas, I remind them (as we have throughout the year) that art and literature can be a social window. Thus, if Americans have indeed become more cynical and distrusting of their leaders and government since 1961, than the art should reflect this. Then, I introduce the first example.

  1. Activity:

Students will, one at a time, examine 3-4 images of works of art that are considered to represent a change in American attitudes towards not only art, but society. They shall complete an image “reading” worksheet with each, followed by a small group, then a class de-briefing and discussion of the art.

Suggested procedure is to work in a computer lab setting with Internet access. The students can either share the same computer or, (best) have individual access, but work near each other. This allows the students high-resolution color images and, with most sites, the ability to zoom in to aspects of the images. Give the students a handout of the web addresses or create a links page via the computer lab. However, it is conceivable the lesson could be conducted using student handouts of the images along with Powerpoint projections or color overheads if you have a large enough projection surface.
Image #1

  1. Guide students to image of Keinholz’s The Portable War Memorial.

  2. Allow students several minutes to complete the “Reading” an Image worksheet.

  3. Place students in small groups of 3-4 students working nearby. Allow a few minutes for them to discuss their impressions.

  4. Solicit responses and develop generalizations as a class. (Instructor may want to ask additional questions of the students regarding the 1968 date and how it might be significant. Review select image details, such as the names of 475 nations that no longer exist inscribed in the back, the changeable date and death toll on the memorial, Iwo Jima reference, and the trash can that repeatedly plays a tape of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.”)

Image #2

    1. Guide students to image of Rosenquist’s F-111(detail with spaghetti).

    2. Allow students several minutes to complete the “Reading” an Image worksheet.

    3. Place students in small groups of 3-4 students working nearby. Allow a few minutes for them to discuss their impressions.

    4. Solicit responses and develop generalizations as a class. (Instructor may want to point out to students that there are a series of these paintings with slight variations such as detail with tire or detail with girl’s head.)

Image #3
(Based on time considerations, either have students work through image analysis worksheet with Rodin’s The Thinker or simply display image and discuss as a class.)

  1. Begin with the normal cast of The Thinker, followed by the Cleveland cast.

  2. Ask students if they can determine what is wrong. Also, ask why a famous piece of art from 1881 is being used to explore American attitudes after the 1960s and 70s.

  3. Share with them the following quote and discuss:

There are all told, twenty-five enlarged versions of Rodin's The Thinker. Of these, less than five were cast and patinated during his lifetime. One of the last Rodin supervised casts can be found in Cleveland, Ohio, where it sits directly in front of the Cleveland Museum of Art. This cast was donated in 1916, the same year that the Museum opened to the public.

At approximately 1 a.m. on March 24, 1970, the Cleveland Museum's version of Rodin's The Thinker was irreparably damaged by a pipe bomb. The bomb itself had been placed on the pedestal that supported the enlargement and had the power of about three sticks of dynamite.

No one was injured in the subsequent blast, but the statue's base and lower legs were destroyed. The remaining sections of the work were blown backward to form a 'plume' at the base, and the entire work was knocked to the ground. It was reported that this attack was undertaken by a radical political group, perhaps as a commentary on the continuing military action in Vietnam, or the elitism of the American government.

Regardless, no one was ever arrested or charged with the destruction. It did bring up several conservation issues related directly to artistic intent however. Since the piece was so dramatically damaged, the Museum was unsure as to how to proceed. There was a movement started to completely recast the original piece and replace the damaged work with the new piece. There were also several people who believed that the original piece itself should be restored using recast elements of Rodin's original. Finally there were a number of people who believed that the statue should not be repaired, but placed outside in its current condition as a statement of the importance of public art and its vulnerability. Eventually, it was the later position that was endorsed, and the Museum's damaged piece currently sits outside of the original 1916 facade.

-Sister Wendy

  1. Conclusion

  1. Ask students to independently come up with a single adjective to describe the attitude of these works of art. Write responses (which will inevitably lead to such words as disillusioned, bitter, cynical, etc.) on board.

  2. Develop a short list of negative events of the 1960’s and 70s that might have brought about this disillusionment. (i.e., JFK, RFK, MLK assassinations, Vietnam War, Detroit and Watts race riots, DNC Chicago riot, Watergate scandal, Kent State shootings, etc.)

  3. Connect the events with the attitudes shown in the art. Remind students that art is a mirror of thoughts. Solicit comparable examples from music and film.

  1. Materials/Resources to be used:

  • Copies of “Reading” an Image.

  • Computers with active Internet connections for each student. (Or copied images.)

  • Image #1-Kienholz, Ed. The Portable War Memorial, 1968.

Obtained from

  • Image #2-Rosenquist, James. F-111 detail with spaghetti. 1965.

Obtained from

  • Image #3-Rodin, Auguste. The Thinker. 1880-1881.

Obtained from

  • Image #4-Rodin, Auguste. The Thinker

Obtained from

  1. Differentiation:

  • Extended assignment might be to have students select a particular song or film from the era that they also feel reflects a sense of disillusionment as a result of the events of the era.

  • Students would need to return the next class with a copy of either the song lyrics or a print-out of the film poster. Assignments could either be to briefly share their findings/insights in front of the class or to include a brief written description of them.

ESOL/Special Education Adjustments:

  • The instructor might want to begin the class with a vocabulary lesson comparing and contrasting optimism versus disillusioned.

  • May also skip the first step of having the students individually use the “Reading” an image worksheet and have them jump right to the small groups and complete the sheets there.

  1. Attachments:

  • “Reading” an Image

  • John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

  1. Annotated Bibliography:


This site offers a wide collection of artwork that can be downloaded for viewing as well as theory and philosophy regarding artwork. It does however, contain many advertisements and therefore should be used with caution by students.

  • Beckett, Sister Wendy, Toby Eady Associates. Sister Wendy's American Collection. 2000. ISBN: 0060195568.

(Handout #1)


Reading” an Image

Name/Title of Image

Date of Image

Type of Image


  1. First, spent a minute or two scanning the image and make some initial observations. Write nothing, just think about what you see.

  1. What do you think is the central subject of this work?

  1. Name/describe specific items, characters, or details that you see in the work.

  1. What, if anything, is the art trying to “say”? In other words, what is the attitude of the work?

  1. Is this image something that you are comfortable with? Would you put this art in your home?

  1. How might this image reflect some American social attitudes as a consequence of the events of the 1960s and 70s?

(Handout #2)

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.…

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy

Friday, January 20, 1961

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