Laura E. Smith

Associate Professor of Art History, Michigan State University


Art History

North American Arts

This survey will introduce major themes in the art and culture of the United States from its indigenous beginnings up to the twentieth century.  While many histories of American Art begin with the arrival of European settlers to the North American continent and focus on their aesthetic accomplishments, this course considers the experiences and visual expressions of all of the major cultural groups that inhabited the lands now known as the United States. Thus, rather than presuming there to be a singular North American story of art, we will examine American art through a collection of histories and issues, allowing for multiple voices and visions to be studied.  Using Frances Pohl’s Framing America: A Social History of American Art as our guide, we will examine architecture, painting, sculpture, textiles, and photography, as well as some ceramics and prints.


Native North American Arts

This course provides an introductory and selective survey on the arts of Native peoples of North America from pre-contact up through the contemporary period.  It examines the formal attributes of the major arts from the eight primary geographical regions including the Plains, the Southwest, California, the Northwest Coast, Alaska, the Northern Woodlands and the Southeast.  It includes a wide range of art forms, such as architecture, sculpture, textiles, painting, ceramics, photography, performance, and body decoration. The class also considers the relationships between these art forms and the social, cultural, and historical factors that surround their production and contribute to their significance in today’s world.


Latin American Arts

This course examines the art and culture of Mexico and Latin America beginning in pre-Columbian times and following through to the present.  Organized into three parts, the course begins with the pre-Columbian period (1800 BC to AD 1492), moves into the years of Spanish colonization (AD 1492 to 1800), and concludes with an overview of modern and contemporary art across the Americas.  The study of colonial art focuses on Mexico introducing concepts of mestizaje, indigenous and national cultures. Turning finally to the nineteenth into the twenty-first centuries, the course primarily considers artistic production in Mexico, Cuba, Peru, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. The various roles of art as well as the relationship between objects, artists, and the cultures from which they come will be studied.


History of Photography

This course will be a survey of history of photography from the medium’s conception through the present.  Rather than present a singular history, however, this course examines photography through a collection of histories of the various institutions, nations, and contexts in which photographs have been put to work.  As a global review of this medium, this course covers the photographies of the United States, western and eastern Europe, as well as the camera work done in India, Mexico, Cuba, Peru, Japan, West and South Africa.  The class is structured around a series of themes including invention, landscape, portraits, colonialism, indigenismo, sovereignty, vernaculars, empire, surveillance, war, art, anthropology, modernism, postmodernism, revolution, surrealism, and digital photographies.  As a media of popular culture, students will examine the interaction of photography with mass media, including documentary and commercial photography, and photojournalism.  We will divide our time between individual photographers and their work and such things as the cultural and social contexts of photography and its’ practices, and a consideration of theoretical issues. The course is designed to give you a solid background in the early histories of photography as well as skills in reading, decoding, researching, and thinking about photographic images and their roles in the modern world.


Integrative Arts and Humanities

Indigenous Visualities in Film, Video, and New Media

This course focuses on the practices of film, video, and digital expressions emerging in the past decades from indigenous communities and independent Native artists in North America.  In particular, this course explores the practices of seeing the world and other people through the eyes of Native American and First Nations peoples; how identity is created and communicated through Native media; what role this work plays in contemporary cultural revitalization; and how indigenous creators respond to Hollywood and European cinema.


Race and Representation: America in Red, White, and Black

This class examines representations and interpretations of race in American visual culture from the American Revolution to the present. We will focus our study on three racial categories which have profoundly shaped modern American culture: redness, blackness, and whiteness. We will examine paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, films, popular spectacles, and the spaces in which they have been displayed or viewed. Our goal is to explore through a series of themes how the makers, consumers, and interpreters of images have differently responded to the following questions: How does one visually represent red, black, and white identities? How have white visions of the red and black “other” shaped American art history and museum practices as well as scientific representation and consumer culture? In what ways can an artist’s identity as an African American, Native American, or a European American inform his work and others’ perceptions of it? What role have images played in periods of profound racial conflict?


Indigenous Peoples of North America as Subjects and Makers of Photographs

Since photography’s inception, Indigenous artists and subjects have used (and continue to use) technologies such as photography and other forms of artistic and mass media to control representation, affirm and explore identities, and to challenge their disenfranchisement under North American settler colonialism. Photography came of age during a particularly violent period of colonialism in the United States.  The extent to which the industrial and colonial world forced great change upon Native lives made it imperative for Indians that they reshape (not assimilate) themselves and their worlds.  This is something that was not new to Native cultures; it was more pronounced in this period.  American Indians were never static. As Paul Chaat Smith writes, “Contrary to what most people (Indians and non-Indians alike) now believe, our true history is one of constant change, technological innovation, and intense curiosity about the world. . . . The camera…was …another tool we could adapt to our own ends.”  This course examines photographs made by and featuring Indigenous peoples of North America within a variety of cultural and historical contexts from the mid-19th century to the present.  We examine Native Americans as objects of photographic representation, and as creative agents, following Indigenous efforts toward sovereignty in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Further, for students of visual culture, this course provides insights into the relation between photography, the way see, and how images are used to influence the act of knowing.