ENGLISH 176: Critical Essay (4-5 pages) + 1 Page Personal Statement on Art

Critical Essay Paper Topics


Throughout this course, we have been raising questions about the purpose of art and why we read fiction and attend movies (as well as why USC requires a course in Humanistic Inquiry as part of its General Education curriculum).   This paper will give you a chance to examine this question as it is addressed in works of art we have read and watched this semester.  You will have a chance at the end of this paper to provide your own answer to this question.


Write at least a 4-5 page paper on one of the following topics:


  1. Write an essay in which you examine how Anna Deavere Smith explains and values her role as an artist in the “Introduction” to Twilight in relation to the way Tod Hackett envisions his role as an artist in The Day of the Locust including why he compares himself to Jeremiah. You are also welcome and encouraged to consider in this essay how Cruz Blancarte envisions his art in “My Ride, Revolution.” 


  1. Write an essay in which you examine how Al Manheim, Kit Sargent and Sidney Fineman envision their role as artists in What Makes Sammy Run? in comparison to how and why Anna Deavere Smith explains the purpose of Twilight and her role as an artist in the “Introduction” to Twilight.  In this paper, you can also use Schulberg’s essay, “The Writer in Hollywood” and material for his Preface and Afterword to the novel.


  1. Write an essay on how and why Socrates Fortlow values the study of history and literature in the story “History” in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned in relation to the way Anna Deavere Smith and/or Al Manheim envision their role as artists. For this paper, you shoud also include discussion of one or both of Mosley’s essays:  “Workin’ on the Chain Gang” and “The Realization of a Writer.”


  1. Write an essay in which you discuss reflections, discussions, or commentary on films, novels, poetry and art in What Makes Sammy Run? and in the excerpt from his essay “The Writer in Hollywood.” Consider how Schulberg’s novel offers perspectives on the power, significance, and character of literature and film as similar and different forms of art. You are also welcome to comment upon portrayals of writers, poets, story conferences, films, movie executives, and screenwriters in this novel to develop your argument.  Consider also competing notions of how to evaluate or measure the value of a film or a work of literature as presented, say, by Al Manheim and Sammy Glick.   For purposes of comparison or contrast, you are welcome to discuss how Anna Deavere Smith or John L. Sullivan or Tod Hackett envision their roles as artists.


  1. Walter Mosley, Budd Schulberg and Luis Rodriguez give us characters who are concerned citizens or who care about neighborhoods and social justice and bonds of connections among people Write an essay in which you consider how and why these characters can be considered artists and social activists or how they combine art and social issues.  Consider also how and why Luis Rodriguez shares with Schulberg or Mosley (or both) a concern to amplify voices of people marginalized or under-represented or unheard in the conversation of the city or world or how they give us artist figures who share a desire to use art to provoke revelations and awakenings about the city or the world and its history.   For this paper you can also draw upon one or both of the following speeches given by Luis Rodriguez (and that can be found in YouTube playlist) :  “Luis Rodriguez and the Gift of Words” and “2014 LA Convergence: Closing Keynote by Luis J. Rodriguez.”


Note:  I deliberately make these paper topics somewhat open-ended.  I like to give students some freedom or room for their own iniative and interests in terms of how they respond to a topic and structure an essay.  Of course, I do value careful, thoughtful reading and citation of the texts to support and develop an argument or thesis


***In addition, write 1 page on the following topic****


To conclude this paper, write at least one page in which you explain your own beliefs or convictions regarding how and why you value art and literature.


In this conclusion, please cite and briefly comment upon one of the voices of artists from Los Angeles in the anthology of “LA Artists on Los Angeles” (edited by Barbara Isenberg) as a point of comparison or contrast or supplement to your essay.   In some interesting way, in other words, weave a citation from this Anthology into your personal essay.  (You are also welcome to invoke points made in the interviews of these Los Angeles artists not just in this 1 page conclusion but when writing the 4-5 page paper.)


In this conclusion to your essay, you are welcome to compare and contrast your vision of the purpose of art in comparison and contrast to the purpose of art or film as presented by characters in Sullivan’s Travels or Singin’ in the Rain  or to characters and artists you have discussed in the first part of this paper or to the art of skateboarding and surf board design as discussed by figures in the movie on YouTube: “Dogtown and the Z Boys.”




Whatever specific topic or set of texts you choose to write about, the paper should try to comment upon or address somehow a primary concern in this course:


—The role (and/or responsibility) of the artist in Los Angeles (in particular) and in society (in general)


You can address this topic in at least one or two ways:


(1) Look for statements in the readings or viewing (including postings on Blackboard and in YouTube clips) by authors in this course addressing this topic in their own voice or through the artist figures in their stories.


Consider, for instance, Smith’s Introduction to “Twilight,” Mosley’s essays “Realizations of the Writer” and “Working on the Chain Gang,” Schulbergy’s essay “The Writer in Hollywood” and his preface and afterword to What Makes Sammy Run?, an excerpt of a letter written by Nathanael West posted on Blackboard, speeches on YouTube given by Luis Rodriguez, and interviews (posted on Blackboard) and an address (posted on YouTube) given by Karen Yamashita.


(2) You can also address the topic by looking closely at “artist figures” in the works of fiction by these writers:


–Al Manheim, Sammy Glick, Sidney Fineman

–Tod Hackett in The Day of the Locust

–Cruz Blancarte in “My Ride, My Revolution”

–You can also bring use in this paper the debate in “Sullivan’s Travels” about the artistc

purposes of film




Find 8-10 key quotations from the readings on you select to write about for this paper.  Cite and comment on these passages in your essay.  You are making an argument or presenting a case (something like a lawyer before a judge and jury) and the quotes from the text are your evidence.  Build the case around this evidence.  Every paragraph after the introduction should include such evidence.


One way to brainstorm on these topics is to imagine a conversation or discussion section in the same room about the roles and responsibilities of the artist in Los Angeles (and in society) featuring Smith, Mosley, Schulberg, Rodriguez.  Or imagine an interview project where you could interview each writer on these questions.  We have their answers in the readings.  Now compare and contrast what they say as you did in commenting upon the interviews you conducted for the interview project.


Grading Scale:


For the letter grade, use the following scale:


17/51  A+ [This is one point of  extra credit]

16/48  A

15/45  A/A-

14/42  A-

13/39  A-/B+

12/36  B+

11/33  B

10/30  B-

9/27   C+

8/24   C

7/21   C-


Below C- should receive:  No Credit.  Revision Necessary

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