American Art and the Political Imagination

American Art and the Political Imagination

March 18–19, 2022
The Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Confirmed Speakers:
Sarah Churchwell – University of London
Jennifer Greenhill – University of Arkansas
Richard Meyer – Stanford University
Wendy Bellion – University of Delaware
Jasmine Nichole Cobb – Duke University
Organised by:
Louis Shadwick – Centre for American Art, The Courtauld
Madeleine Harrison – Centre for American Art, The Courtauld
Oil painting depicting part of the Statue of Liberty, by Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell, Working on the Statue of Liberty, 1946, Oil on canvas, 54.61 cm × 43.02 cm.
Visual culture has long been central to the formation of the American political imagination. Images and objects across a variety of genres have been critical to constructing and challenging how the American public imagines and understands their nation’s history, identity and values. From the colonial period to the present era, American cultural output has fostered the emergence and embeddedness of apparent social, cultural and economic defaults, shaping engrained and enduring models of Americanness. In consequence, the American visual economy has deeply informed the country’s politics at regional, national and international levels. From colonial portraits and satirical newspaper cartoons to monumental history paintings like Emanuel Leutze’s George Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), images have served to reify and perform national political identity for a willing viewing public; and from early mass-produced portraits of George Washington to the recent portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, artworks have been used to apotheosise some political figures, while others go unrepresented and largely unremembered. Painted and photographic depictions of events from the nation’s political history have also played an essential role in mythologising those events within American collective memory and ensuring their enduring resonance.
Visual culture has also, however, been critical in the formulation and dissemination of counter-narratives and subversions that ensure the American political imagination is far from homogeneous. Just as images have worked to entrench a political mainstream, they have also served countercultural purposes, challenging prevailing fashionings of national identity and agitating for change. Particularly over the course of the last century, many artists have worked to undermine dominant and exclusive notions of Americanness that privilege certain identities and worldviews and delegitimise others. Across the political spectrum, from the apex of federal government to the battleground of party politics and the grassroots of local organising and activism, visual culture remains a crucial tool for uniting factions with common beliefs, formulating and contesting national political mainstreams, speaking for oppressed or marginalised identities, and performing the remembrance of historical political events deemed critical to national identity.
This two-day conference invites speakers to examine how the visual has created, defended and challenged American political identity. We welcome papers on topics from all periods and genres of American art, from the colonial to the contemporary. We particularly welcome proposals that consider representations of and by marginalised and oppressed artists and subjects across American visual and material cultures. We invite proposals for twenty-minute papers on a range of topics, including but not limited to:
  • Visual frameworks of political power and influence in the colonial era
  • Revolutionary era artistic production and its contributions to the formulation of the republic’s political identity
  • Identifications and deconstructions of American exceptionalism across visual culture
  • Racially exclusive projections of American identity
  • Gendered constructions of Americanness within visual culture
  • Images of presidents across American history and the display and function of federal art
  • The US’ two-party system and how visual culture distinguishes each party’s identity, particularly during election cycles
  • American geographies as the site of distinct political identities and contested definitions of Americanness, particularly after the Civil War
  • The conflation and integration of regional and national identities, as seen in Regionalist cultural movements across the North, South and the Midwest
  • The convergence of art and politics during the Great Depression, particularly via New Deal murals and public art projects
  • The blurring of boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and between art and the masses
  • The politicisation of sex and sexuality in American visual media

Please send your paper title, 250-300 word abstract and CV to louis.shadwick@courtauld.ac.uk and madeleine.harrison@courtauld.ac.uk by 15 June 2021. Due to limited funding, we are primarily looking to receive proposals from applicants based in the United Kingdom and Europe. We look forward to receiving your proposal and will contact all applicants by no later than 15 July with the outcome.

Citations