Politics as Symbol/Symbol as Politics
Opens mid-July at the Spencer Museum
As Americans, politics are a part of the daily landscape, especially as the presidential election nears. To take on a different view, a political science professor and an art historian have decided to present an exhibit that looks at the art and imagery that accompanies a presidential campaign.
Author Fletcher Knebel quoted, “Statesmanship is harder than politics. Politics is the art of getting along with people, whereas statesmanship is the art of getting along with politicians.” The words art and politics often appear together. The two are not as divergent as some want to believe and the coming exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art on the University of Kansas campus will help prove the relationship. Politics as Symbol/Symbol as Politics opens July 17 in the 20/21 Gallery Conversation Wall. This exhibition is curated by Dr. Burdett Loomis, professor of political science at the University of Kansas, and has been organized with the Andrew W. Mellon Department of Academic Programs at the Spencer Museum of Art.
“For the last two years, I have been the chair of the Friends of Spencer Museum of Art. I own art and my wife and I collect art. The Spencer was fortunate to receive a large challenge grant from the Mellon Foundation. The art historian who was hired, Celka Straughn, understood that I wanted to see an exhibition that looked at politics in art. In the fall of 2011, I didn’t have any idea of what I wanted to do object-wise, but I knew she could help me make it happen,” Loomis says.
Celka Straughn, Andrew W. Mellon Director of Academic Programs, complimented Loomis for his eye for art and how deeply he thinks about art. “Initially it was not necessarily to illustrate art or content, but we looked at broad topics. First was a comparison of the 1912 election and the coming election in November (2012). The collection would not sustain that, but instead found objects with juxtaposed ideas such as inclusion and exclusion.” At several junctions in this project, the concept of inclusion was very real. “First it was always important to work with our collection. There may be an item or two from the Dole Institute on campus, but the bulk of this exhibition originated here. We have to engage the faculty and students with exhibitions that are temporary or long-termed engagement. The goal is to use the museum. We are integrating the art museum into »»
the academic aspects of the university. It is also so important to share the collection with the community,” she says.
Both Loomis and Straughn knew they wanted to almost exclusively use the existing and extensive collection at the museum for the exhibition. The initial discussion occurred in the fall of 2011. The two started talking about politics in art and what the exhibition’s construction should be. There was discussion on presidential elections and other themes, but politics and symbols seemed correct. Loomis brought up the concept of his former graduate school professor, Murray Edelman, and his concept of “symbolic politics.” According to Edelman, political players subconsciously produced a distinct political world for the electorate using political symbols and rituals, often abetted by the mass media.
The themes visitors will see include the way politics reaches a mass audience, the themes of inclusion and exclusion, and even technology within symbols such as commercials from local politicians played on a loop. Some familiar names will also be part of this exhibition including Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Larry Schwarm, Robert Rauschenberg and Thomas Nast. Loomis says he wants to organize the exhibition so that is appears that two adjoining pieces might be right for a conversation. One example he offered uses caricatures. The first is by Thomas Nast, drawn near the end of the 1800s. The second is a more contemporary piece by David Levine depicting Richard Nixon as a vampire. Put the images together and visitors can come to their own conclusions about how politicians are portrayed.
“I don’t think there will be much in the way of descriptions. The practice of the Spencer these days is to limit the words and allow for a less guided experience,” Loomis says. There are some photos in the exhibition too. A photo that dates to around 1950 shows two young African-American girls playing in a neighborhood in Washington D.C. as the U.S. Capitol looms over them. “It seems like these worlds don’t intersect,” Loomis says. “My goal, my hope is to get people to think about politics in a different way.”
Loomis says the work by Schwarm is a favorite as is the American flag by Jasper Johns. “Could there be any more powerful a symbol as the flag? It’s been exciting to work on this project. Murray Edelman said symbols are in the world and we can try to control them, but symbols can take on a life of their own. If in some small way, I can offer a hint of a fresh perspective, then I am doing my job.”
Straughn says the two deliberately planned the exhibit because of the coming presidential election. “It is on people’s minds. Coincidentally, we will be showing an exhibition on health care in an adjacent space so there will some nice resonances around the museum. We hope the works inspire dialogue. We have a duty to share these ideas,” she says. l