Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Electing To Laugh

In honor of Election Day yesterday, I want to dedicate this week’s post to a discussion of George Caleb Bingham’s painting The County Election, which is included in “Stories for the Public, 1830–1860,” the second chronological section of American Stories:

The County Election

Above: George Caleb Bingham (American, 1811–1879). The County Election, 1851–52. Oil on canvas; 35 1/2 x 48 3/4 in. (90 x 123.8 cm). Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase (124:1944).

The exhibition includes several works with political themes, such as Richard Caton Woodville’s War News from Mexico and Politics in an Oyster House, but Bingham in particular approaches his subject with an eye for comedy. Bingham, who ran for public office several times in his life, reveals the humor and chaos of the democratic process gone awry. On the porch of the polling place in rural Missouri, an opportunistic candidate tips his hat and smiles as he offers a ballot to a prospective voter; in the left foreground, a portly fellow whose vote has most likely been purchased with liquor takes obvious pleasure in his payment; another man behind the imbibing figure drags a completely incapacitated fellow citizen to the polls. And there are many other such vignettes of electoral corruption and dysfunction. (Listen to the recent Met Podcast episode to hear Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter discuss even more details, as well as his overall impression of the painting.)

The humor in Bingham’s painting is extraordinary for a number of reasons. At the time the artist painted this canvas, the political climate in Missouri was tense, owing in large measure to the deep divisions over the issue of slavery. The climate was so rough, in fact, that in 1851, Thomas Hart Benton, U.S. senator from Missouri (and great-uncle of the famous artist of the same name) lost his seat after thirty years in office for his anti-slavery stance. Bingham also had personal reasons to be bitter about the political arena. In 1846 he ran as a Whig candidate for the Missouri State Senate and won by a close margin. His opponent, however, contested the outcome, causing the Democrat-controlled state legislature to declare that Bingham had lost. Given the artist’s extreme personal disappointments and the prevailing tensions in Missouri politics, it’s perhaps surprising that he could inject humor into the scene of an unfair election.

It’s even more surprising that the tone of the artist’s humor is gentle, not bitingly satiric. Bingham certainly exaggerates the poses and facial expressions of some of the figures in The County Election for comedic effect, but he doesn’t contort them to vicious extremes. The painting doesn’t even necessarily call for changes to the system. Rather, the artist appears to identify with his fellow Missourians, finding amusement in their misguided activities. In fact, when Bingham exhibited the work in Missouri, Kentucky, and Louisiana, audiences remained largely undisturbed by his portrayal of corruption in the voting process, and instead recognized and were sympathetic to the characters and the universal human failings they embodied. (For more information on the work’s exhibition history, see Elizabeth Johns, American Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.)

Although the comical elements of Bingham’s canvas appeal to me, even nearly 160 years after the work was completed, I’m thankful the scene doesn’t resemble my own experiences. Like most modern-day voters, I arrive at my polling site on Election Day, wait in an orderly if occasionally long line, and register my vote in an environment that prohibits electioneering. We’ve also come a long way from the time when laws excluded women and African Americans from voting. In The County Election, women are entirely absent and the sole African American is relegated to the extreme left edge of the canvas and is shown serving a drink, not participating directly in the election. Still, it’s a credit to Bingham’s skill as both an artist and a storyteller that this painting remains relevant and appealing today. Many contemporary comedians and commentators use humor in a similar way to point out real or perceived flaws in the democratic process. Think of episodes of The Daily Show or The Simpsons, or political cartoons. So while the details of the voting problems chronicled by Bingham have changed, the pattern of drawing attention to the fairness of the process—especially through humor—continues.

As a final note, I’d like to point out that this work, like many of the paintings in American Stories, is actually quite funny. And yes, it’s okay to laugh!

—Katie Steiner

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