John Quincy Adams famously noted that democracy’s essence is iconoclastic; others evidently disagreed and sought images that were meant not only to represent ideals of popular sovereignty, but also somehow to encourage civic virtue in practice (the period just after the French Revolution remains the most well-known example). In political theory, the former position has been reflected in an important strand of thinking that considers democracy as a fundamental break with logics of embodiment and incorporation (the people do not take the place of the king; in democracy, the place of power must remain empty). Some hold that democracy’s inherent complexity prohibits the simplicity of the visualization of a Leviathan, while its contested nature makes allegories such as Lorenzetti’s buon governo inappropriate models for modern systems of self-government. Others again deny categorically that there is any structural “iconographic deficit” and that democracy can and should pursue specific visual strategies to foster people’s civic imagination.
Our gathering is meant to revisit these debates, but also invite analysis of concrete examples, from the post-revolutionary period in France to images of the crowd in the of mass democracy, from the design of clothing and political fashion in the nineteenth century to the symbols deployed by the January 6th insurrectionists, as well as contemporary attempts to create public spaces meant to facilitate democratic conduct.