Essays

Fights to Withhold Paintings from Capitol Hill Show Their Political Power

Recent disputes over a painting by an 18-year-old and another from the 19th century illustrate art’s ability to speak truth to power, but also to become a pawn in politicians’ power games.

George Caleb Bingham's "The Verdict of the People" (1854) at Donald Trump's inaugural luncheon (screenshot via YouTube)
George Caleb Bingham’s “The Verdict of the People” (1854–55) at Donald Trump’s inaugural luncheon (screenshot via YouTube)

WASHINGTON, DC — Over the last few weeks, two paintings with roots in St. Louis, Missouri, have come under attack for their display in federal government buildings here. Eighteen-year-old David Pulphus’s award-winning student painting depicting a protest in Ferguson, Missouri, remains a pawn in a tug-of-war between Democrats and Republicans, removed and reinstalled at least three times on Capitol Hill. In St. Louis and beyond, concerned citizens implored the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) to refrain from loaning a painting to Donald Trump’s inaugural luncheon. One piece hung on the wall connecting House Office Buildings to the US Capitol Building; the other served as the backdrop for a celebration of Trump’s ascendance to power. The display and removal of these two works have sent powerful messages to the people of the United States about who has power, and art’s role as a mechanism of that power.

Annually, the artwork from selected high-school artists nationwide is hung on the walls of a long tunnel connecting the House Office Buildings to the US Capitol, yet Pulphus’s painting has become the object of a very pointed attack, leading ultimately to its removal by order of the Architect of the Capitol. The attacks come at a time of transition of power from the hands of the Democratic majority to Republican leadership, and this piece serves as more than a symbol of that transition of power. Rather, the content of the artwork itself — and, arguably, the identity of the artist, a young, black man — is an assertion of a narrative that the new lawmakers appear to want quieted. The painting itself is a conduit, a material assertion of the perspective of community members that has confronted members of Congress, staffers, and lobbyists daily.

George Caleb Bingham, "The Verdict of the People" (1854–55), oil on canvas, 46 x 55 in, Saint Louis Museum of Art (via Wikimedia Commons)
George Caleb Bingham, “The Verdict of the People” (1854–55), oil on canvas, 46 x 55 in, Saint Louis Museum of Art (via Wikimedia Commons)

A few miles from Pulphus’s high school, at the SLAM, another painting became the subject of a power play when the institution agreed to lend George Caleb Bingham’s “Verdict of the People” (1855) to be featured at Trump’s inaugural luncheon in the National Statuary Hall of the US Capitol. Artist Ilene Berman and art historian Dr. Ivy Cooper created a petition to stop the institution from lending the painting, voicing concerns about its implications for the community, the responsibilities of the institution to its audience, and the “normalization of this president,” as Berman told Hyperallergic.

“We feel that this particular painting, as a representation of our community, is problematic in the context of the Trump election,” Dr. Cooper told Hyperallergic. The pomp and circumstance of positioning a painting depicting the “Verdict of the People” as the backdrop for the inauguration of a candidate who lost the popular vote by millions is bitterly ironic, as the petition’s creators point out. SLAM’s refusal to withhold the work gives a sense of the power of the art institution in the new Trump era. As Berman put it, “institutions are supposed to be about genuine engagement with their mission and not about placating the powerful.” In its ultimate decision to lend the painting, is the institution subservient, or empowered?

For Representative William Lacy Clay, the Democrat from Missouri whose office awarded Pulphus’s painting first place in his district, removing the work from display on Capitol Hill disempowers the artist and the community his work represents. He told NPR, “the African-American community has had a painful, tortured history with law enforcement in this country. So let’s not ignore the fact, that that’s not contemporary. That’s historic.” That Pulphus’s work gets to tell this story within a federal building is an exercise of that community’s power. And its removal is tantamount to the removal of that power, a public parade of dominance by members of the Republican party and a refusal to address the identity politics that come along with the work.

While the display of a painting on Capitol Hill can assert the power of an individual, institution, or community, there is a searing power in the absence of an artwork. “Absence is a poetic display of a refusal to be a part,” Berman said. This philosophy fueled the #J20 Art Strike, an act of “non-compliance” on Inauguration Day. Imagine if the backdrop to the Inaugural Luncheon, which has been an American painting at each of these events since 1985, had been a vacant white wall. What does it mean for an artwork by an 18-year-old black man depicting Ferguson to be removed from a government building? The absence of art, just as often, is a critical display of the remover’s power.

The entanglement of art and the power of political parties is nothing new. In July 1937, four years after Adolf Hitler came into power, his regime organized the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich. The show gathered modern, abstract, and non-representational art, hung purposefully askew, and presented so that it would be interpreted as a “malicious plot against the German people.” Forty years later, the work of the communist mural collective Brigada Ramona Parra was continually painted over by the regime of Augusto Pinochet.

But why art? Why are these paintings the charged objects of the transition of power? History has demonstrated that artworks hold power — they are consolidated vessels of perspective, they give voice to the voiceless, they can be a cry in a room of silent compliance. The disputes over Pulphus’s painting and the loan of Bingham’s demonstrate that powerful artworks can also be leveraged to disempower. As scholar Krzysztof Ziarek wrote in his 2002 essay “Art, Power, and Politics: Heidegger on Machenschaft and Poiêsis,” “we have to keep questioning art in relation to power, to ask how art is productive of power in the subjective and objective sense of this genitive, that is, produced both through and as power.”

Art has always carried political power, and if the past week is any indication, the flexing of power will be a popular strategy over the next four years. As such, artists and art institutions must become increasingly perspicacious about how their works might play into political power games. These paintings hold their own power of authorship, content, and even as physical objects occupying politically charged spaces. Many paintings articulate opinions, and those physical manifestations of an individual’s or a community’s perspectives can be used as mechanisms of power — to reinforce it, or to deny it.

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