Magazine | April 25, 2016, Issue

Art and the Free Man

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso (
David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art, by Victoria C. Gardner Coates (Encounter, 368 pp., $27.99

For art historian Victoria Coates, David’s sling, in Michelangelo’s colossal statue of the Old Testament David in Florence, is not just a representation of the weapon with which the diminutive future king of Israel put down the huge brute Goliath: It is also an icon for a small, but free and wily, Renaissance Florence that held its own in the rough neighborhood of 15th- and 16th-century Italy and the Mediterranean beyond. Had Michelangelo been conscripted to work for the Ottoman sultan, I suppose he might have been hired instead to glorify the aggressor Goliath.

In other words, Coates advances a familiar argument: that constitutional government and its companion culture of freedom foster singular art of many kinds — publicly funded temples, private sculpture and painting, religious architecture, and subsidized private commemoration. Her concise and beautifully illustrated survey is not intended for academics and specialists. And she accepts her working thesis mostly as a given, without worrying too much about whether its antithesis — the ordeal of autocracy prompts a desperate creative reaction to it — can also explain remarkable sculpture, such as the Laocoön, or the Byzantine emperor Justinian’s majestic basilica of Hagia Sophia, or literary genius of the caliber of Petronius, Boethius, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn. Nor does Coates explore how democratic culture and market capitalism can reduce art to its lowest common denominator, whether the stereotyped satyrs with their erect phalluses splashed on red-figured Athenian pottery, or the current musical oeuvre of Miley Cyrus, or what the Oscars now often reward.

There is also little exploration of how the mechanics of democracy actually promote singular artistic genius. Is the catalyst sheer freedom of expression without much censorship? The shared energy of participatory politics, rippling throughout the larger culture? An accompanying egalitarianism that promotes meritocracy and finds genius without worry over class or wealth boundaries? Or free markets that can generate concrete material incentives to hungry artists? Coates does not quite define democratic culture (does she mean plebiscites, constitutions, lack of property qualifications, tripartite forms of government, etc.?) or worry about postmodern and multicultural critics who would shout back the mantra, “But what about women, slaves, and the Other?”

Instead, in refreshing fashion, I think, Coates just presses ahead. Her ten artistic and architectural examples across time and space (from Periclean Athens to Picasso’s Spain) cluster in renaissance, often imperial, cities — Athens, Rome, Venice, Florence, Paris, London, and the Boston and New York of 19th-century America. Common to all her episodes are not just the presence of constitutional rule and greater freedom than elsewhere at the time, but, as she often points out, lots of money flowing from imperial trade or legally protected property and capitalist commerce. Florentine-type affluence allows commissions, patronage, and subsidies that create independent artistic livelihoods — and competitive creative frenzy between such artists as Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo — of a sort quite different from the artistic culture fostered under the dreary state oversight of Xerxes’ Persepolis, Montezuma’s Tenochtitlan, Hitler’s Third Reich, Stalin’s Soviet Union, or Mao’s China.

In a very brief introduction, Coates notes some of the reasoning behind her selections. The artists and democratic political leaders she discusses resonate across the centuries and provide guidance for their ideological and spiritual descendants, even as they interact as supportive contemporaries. Venetians and Florentines seek to emulate Athenians — and rub shoulders with the political dynamos of their eras. American landscape painters are inspired by the northern Renaissance as they blaze trails and chronicle the Civil War. The impressionist Monet is a close associate of the wartime French prime minister Georges Clemenceau. Jacques-Louis David is both portrait painter and player in the French Revolution. In such a short survey, Coates asserts rather than qualifies. (“These free societies have set a remarkable pattern of success and influence far beyond what their size or resources might have predicted.”) Yet upon examination, her declarations turn out to be more or less historically and philosophically accurate.

Coates’s method in each of the chronologically arranged chapters is to explore an iconic example or theme in a particular democratic society, and then to explain how the art in question reflected its free landscape and why its appeal has lasted, transcending the tastes of the era of its creation. The Parthenon is not as large as the huge Temple of Zeus below the Acropolis (finally finished in Roman-imperial times), but it is far more majestic, given that people voted on its construction and their elected leaders picked architects and artists who reflected the values, demands, and energy of a restless, free, and inquiring public. To understand the spirit behind the temple’s brilliant frieze course, architectural refinements, and pedimental sculptures, read Thucydides’ version of Pericles’ famous Funeral Oration — in which the Athenian democratic imperialist outlined why Athenians were different from, and better than, the citizens of other Greek city-states (which were themselves far more consensual than other polities in the Mediterranean).

Only in the Roman Republic, with its idea of the law’s trumping influential persons, would the family line of the tragic Bruti — from the first consul, Lucius Junius, at the end of the sixth century b.c., to his late-republican descendant, the tyrannicide Marcus Junius — inspire such serial artistic reverence. Similarly, Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica is the logical manifestation of the elected doge and his council, which sent the relatively small city-state’s galleys all over the Mediterranean, and not just to plunder riches for the city, but to use those profits to beautify public buildings, squares, and monuments. Early-modern Holland set up representative councils that created a body of laws and rules that allowed spectacular investment and commerce; in turn, this profit-making provided the capital to fund a Rembrandt and a Rubens, and to foster a democratic sensibility among the Dutch merchant class that would appreciate the art that followed.

Jacques-Louis David may have been many unpleasant things — political chameleon, rank opportunist, naïf, and ruthless promoter of mob violence — and he did, in the end, glorify his hero, the tyrannical Napoleon, as the iron fist supposedly protecting the egalitarian values of the French Revolution. But his most spectacular paintings, such as The Death of Marat (1793), were undeniably inspired by the more hopeful days of that Revolution and the sense that Frenchmen of all statuses were at last free.

In 19th-century “Manifest Destiny” America, there was also a sense that anyone might do anything he pleased, a spiritual longing that so often translated into going out west. Americans wanted to experience art that encapsulated their collective exuberance of incorporating an entire continent under constitutional government. Frederick Lander’s famous 1859 expedition, which brought artists, including German immigrant Albert Bierstadt, from Missouri to the Pacific, led to spectacular western panoramas quite different from the familiar landscapes of the Hudson School and helped to remind Americans that their newly discovered Rockies and Sierra were as remarkable as was the character of the people themselves.

With Pablo Picasso — the Communist and winner of the Lenin prize, awarded by a Soviet Union that had killed 20 million of its own — Coates’s thesis faces its greatest test, greater even than the Venetian theft of the iconic Byzantine copper quadriga during the deplorable Italian sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Did not Picasso continue to paint in Nazi-occupied France — and were not his staunch admirers found in Stalin’s Soviet Russia, which saw a possible Loyalist victory in the Spanish Civil War not as something that would lead to a Western democracy, but as an opportunity to establish a socialist “republic” of the kind all too familiar after the war in totalitarian Eastern Europe?

In his massive canvas of Guernica, Picasso depicts the leveling of a small Basque city in northern Spain, on April 26, 1937, by German and Italian bomber crews. General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist Spain had imported these bomber crews to prove the same fascist point that would be made over two years later against Warsaw, Poland. Coates writes of Guernica: “While most of [Picasso’s] art was not political, his finest work drew its inspiration from a fight against tyranny.” In a way that is certainly true: As free souls, we sympathize more with the dead souls of Guernica than with the unfree doctrines that slaughtered them — and Picasso thrived on the freedom that was not always the logical consequence of his own political affinities.

Each episode is lavishly illustrated with full-color reproductions. Encounter Books editor Roger Kimball deserves praise for what must have been an extraordinary investment from a smaller press. Coates has titled subsections in each chapter that weave back and forth between discussions of politics, art, and biography, coupled with skilled art analyses that accompany the illustrations. She has suggestions for further reading and a full index. There are lots of quotes, and sources are footnoted unobtrusively on the side margins of the page — although I am not quite sure what Coates means when she warns in a note on “Creative Reconstruction” that “there are creatively reconstructed dialogues throughout this book” — does she mean the Thucydidean method of putting words into the mouths of speakers based on what logically should have been, or historically was likely to have been, spoken?

Aside from its value to the proverbial general reader who appreciates engaging prose, top-rate illustrations, and clear reasoning, Coates’s book is a much-needed introductory text for a Western-civilization, humanities, or art-history course — accessible, sensible, reliable, and inspiring, with an optimism and a confidence that are all too rare on campuses these days.

– Mr. Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.

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