Ephemeral Art

This course will examine the notion of the ephemeral, in other words, objects and materials of short duration, and how they raise questions of time, materiality, and matter that relate to changing political, social, and cultural contexts. Art historians have long focused their attention on the singular masterpiece and their attendant notions of enduring value, aesthetic perfection, and the ideal. Yet recent scholarship in fields such as media studies have demonstrated that the ephemeral and obsolescence or the outdated have played an equal role in our understanding of the work of art and its materials. What if a work of art was meant to last for just 15 minutes? What would it mean to make a work of art that lasted the span of a snapchat? We will explore the notion of the ephemeral through a series of readings organized around conceptual terms such as dust, the archive, the monumental, celebrity, and happenings. Theoretical readings and class discussions will be anchored in the study of works of art ranging from paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, film, and performance art, from antiquity to the present. These discussions will be supplemented by visits to museum collections and conservation labs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library and Museum, and other institutions in the New York area. The aim of the course is to demonstrate that artworks are not only the object of an artist’s intentionality, but subject to changing cultural perceptions of time.

2 credits

Course Code: HTA 306

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.