The mixture of art and politics is a complex brew, at once intimate and wide-reaching, broad and oblique. The Corcoran’s holdings give a sense of the power and range of such connections. The collection surveys some of the great figures and moments from the nation’s history, but beyond that, it offers a glimpse into the ways that artists’ images have shaped it.
Painted portraits of 18th- and 19th-century political and military leaders such as George Washington are fundamental to the way we have come to understand them: heroic, noble icons central to the nation’s mythology. Paintings of everyday life—known as genre scenes—which gained prominence during the 19th century, emphasize a different aspect of political life. Often created with a particular slant on the day’s events, and focused on daily interactions and backroom workings, these pictures by artists such as William Sidney Mount and Horace Bonham tell the story of American democracy as born of humble origins rather than exalted leaders.
Throughout the 20th century, politically oriented artists often took a more subversive approach. Some, such as the photographers who documented the Civil Rights Movement, made pictures of dissent and struggle that expanded the language of both politics and culture. Other artists working in a variety of media, including Gordon Parks, Kerry James Marshall, and Kara Walker, made issues of class, sexuality, race, and slavery their explicit subject. Central to their work is a concern with stereotypes and the ways in which seemingly neutral traditions, histories, and images are filled with significance. In an attempt to influence political dialogue directly, much recent political art encourages viewers to question received wisdom, and creates new meanings in the process.