From Painting to Pixels: Expansionist Topoi in American Visual Culture
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Digital representations of the mythic West abound, from Rockstar Games’ popular open-world Western, Red Dead Redemption, to free iPad and iPhone apps (Oregon Settler, Trade Nations Frontier). These virtual re-enactments use twenty-first century technologies to reinforce broader dominant-cultural narratives celebrating the twinned colonization of indigenous land and bodies, yet their roots lie in far older aesthetic and discursive conventions: those found within nineteenth-century landscape and frontier paintings. This project traces the evolution of frontier imagery from the nineteenth century to the digital age and uses Aristotelian topics theory to evaluate recurring images’ discursive impact over time in a Western context. Nineteenth-century landscape artists generated a number of recurring visual topo which persist to this day. Among the most prominent are the “empty” prairie or rugged Western landscape, waiting to be filled with white settlements, and the vanishing or dying "Indian," whose demise paves the way for the land’s new inhabitants. My project articulates the rhetorical dimensions of these images and demonstrates the ongoing role of both visual and digital culture in shaping U.S. public opinion concerning Western land use and Native American tribal sovereignty. It also analyzes the additional rhetorical power and complexity such images hold when they make the leap from static media (paintings, illustrations, sculptures) to more interactive formats. Because participatory media such as video games allow for multisensory engagement – tapping users’ aural and kinesthetic faculties alongside visual faculties – their multiple sensory appeals enhance rhetoricity at the same time they blur the lines dividing rhetor and audience in traditional Western understandings of rhetoric.
Solon Hannibal Borglum
James Earle Fraser
William Holbrook Beard
Red Dead Redemption
Elston, Mary Melissa (2014). From Painting to Pixels: Expansionist Topoi in American Visual Culture. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from