American Art and the Political Imagination

This conference originated from a single question: In what ways have art and visual culture contributed to the formulation of the American political imagination? Since its beginnings, the nation’s fractious political identity has been developed and perpetuated throughout its visual economy, playing out on picture planes, splashed across mural panels, and made matter in sculptures and monuments. As such, visual and material culture are a critical locus through which the nation’s political constituents — its voters, parties, politicians, and dissenters — imagine, perform, and organise themselves. It is through the creation, manipulation, dissemination, and destruction of images and objects that these constituents have formed their political identities, asserted assent and dissent, and articulated their desire to end political regimes or their yearning to revisit them.

This conference invites speakers to share recent research on the political valences of American visual and material culture. Their papers cover painting, photography, illustration, monuments, design, art writing, and digital interventions; their topics span a wide variety of subjects, including the production of stable national political identities via imaginings of the American past in 1930s material culture; the writing of politics into and out of art criticism, from the antebellum era to the postmodern; and the role of the media — from television to Snapchat — in producing political power. Broadly, this conference seeks to foreground the political as a key framework for art historical analysis, and to explore what emerges when we resituate images, objects, and artists within explicitly political contexts.

Organised by Louis Shadwick (The Courtauld) and Madeleine Harrison (The Courtauld). 

This event is kindly supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art. 

This event has passed.

Friday 18th March, 2.00pm - 5.00pm GMT and Saturday 19th March, 1.45pm GMT - 6.15pm GMT

Free, booking essential


Registration closes 30 minutes before the event start time. If you do not receive log in details on the day of the event, please contact  

Day One Recording

Day Two Recording


Day 1: Friday 18 March

14.00 GMT / 10:00 EST / 09:00 CST / 07:00 PST

Introduction – Madeleine Harrison (The Courtauld Institute of Art) & Louis Shadwick (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

14.20 – 15.40 Panel 1: ‘Transmission’

Chair: Frances Varley — The Courtauld Institute of Art

Dr. Linda Freedman (University College London), “Wit and Biting Satire: The Afric American Picture Gallery (1859)”

Dr. Tom Day (The Courtauld Institute of Art), “Spectacle Nation: The Political Imaginary of Television and the Configuration of the Human in the Art of Keith Haring”

Dr. Jo Pawlik (University of Sussex), “Figuring Fascism in the Campus Underground Press during the Nixon era”


15.40 Break

16.00 – 17.00 Panel 2: ‘Figure’

Chair: Dr. John Fagg — University of Birmingham

Professor Jasmine Nichole Cobb (Duke University), ‘The Pictorial Life of Harriet Tubman’

Professor Richard Meyer (Stanford University), ‘Bad Daddy: George Washington in San Francisco’


17.00 End of Day 1


Day 2: Saturday 19 March

13.45 GMT / 09:45 EST / 08:45 CST / 06:45 PST

Introduction & Housekeeping

14.00 – 15.20 Panel 3: ‘Materiality and Immateriality’

Chair: Dr. Alice Butler — The Courtauld Institute of Art

Dr. Elizabeth Johnson (University College London), “Augmented Reality Monuments in L.A.: Redefining the Monument’s Political Power and Presence in Public Space”

Dr. Jonathan Vernon (The Courtauld Institute of Art/Oxford Brookes University), “Art after Oppenheimer: American Politics and the Many Deaths of Modernism”

Professor Kimberly Lamm (Duke University), “Still Fugitivity: The Black Sartorial Imagination in Contemporary Portrait Painting”


15.20 Break

15.40 – 17.00 Panel 4: ‘Performance and Spectacle’

Chair: Francesca Wilmott — The Courtauld Institute of Art

Professor Wendy Bellion (University of Delaware), “Iconoclasm Redux: Public Space and National Identity”

Professor Kay Wells (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), “The Uncanny Design of White National Identity: Colonial Williamsburg and the Index of American Design”

Professor Jennifer Greenhill (University of Arkansas), ‘Politics at the Beach’


17.00 – 18.10 Keynote

Professor Sarah Churchwell (University of London), ‘The Iconography of America First, 1888-2022’


18.10 Concluding remarks

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.
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