DAVID’S SLING: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art
By Victoria C. Gardner Coates
Encounter Books. 310 pp. $27.99
There are two ways to read Victoria C. Gardner Coates’s book “David’s Sling.”
One is as the work of an art historian exploring the Western canon for sculptures, canvases and architecture that reflect or animate democratic impulses. From the Parthenon of ancient Greece to Picasso’s “Guernica” — with detours through Renaissance Florence, revolutionary France and the westward-expansion era of 19th-century America — Coates identifies 10 works that she believes “remain tributes to the free political systems that fostered them and which they were originally designed to honor.”
The other way is to overthink the book entirely, parsing artistic and historical interpretations for insights on Coates’s day job as the senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican presidential candidate and Iowa caucuses winner who has vowed to “carpet-bomb [the Islamic State] into oblivion” and find out “if sand can glow in the dark.”
I’m leaning toward overthinking it.
I hope that’s not unfair. After all, Coates says that working for Cruz and his directive to “fight for freedom” has “greatly enriched” her book, which she describes as “a hybrid of political history and art history.” Coates is a hybrid, too, having worked not just for Cruz but for Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in addition to earning a doctorate in Italian Renaissance art from the University of Pennsylvania.
That unusual mix makes for an unusual book, enjoyable in its visuals and prose, even if not fully persuasive in its arguments. Coates reconsiders art, artists and their patrons through their relationships to freedom and democracy, writing with equal conviction whether those ties are strong or ambiguous. And when the links are clear, the causal arrows fly in all directions. Democracies have a special capacity to promote cultural excellence, Coates contends; or, later, the most consequential art emerges from the greatest political darkness. And she acknowledges that “a large proportion of Western cultural patrimony” was commissioned by monarchs or popes, not your standard exemplars of democracy and egalitarianism.
“David’s Sling” jams varied histories into a single, rigid framework. That can be provocative and illuminating in a book. It’s just a bit unnerving in a foreign policy adviser for a potential commander in chief.
Coates’s firmest ground is amid the ruins of the Parthenon, the clearest symbol of Athenian democracy and the author’s most convincing case study. She dwells on the friendship between Pericles, Athens’s most influential statesman, and Phidias, the sculptor who would lead the rebuilding of the Acropolis following its destruction by the Persians. For all the praise Coates heaps on Pericles, the Athenian leader also comes off as a smooth-talking, power-perpetuating, warmongering rich kid obsessed with an Athenian version of the American exceptionalism that Cruz extolled when announcing his presidential run. Here is Pericles’s version: “For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule. Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours.”
Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic, is Coates’s next hero. He emerges as something of an anti-establishment guy (wink, wink) when he vows to avenge the rape of a friend’s wife by a son of King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. “I swear by the gods to expel Superbus Tarquin, his wife, and their disgusting offspring from Rome — by fire, iron, or whatever means I have,” Brutus proclaimed. “Our city shall have no more kings!” Brutus would become consul of Rome and help forge the republican system of government, distinct from Athenian-style direct democracy. Coates praises the bust of Brutus, sculpted around 300 B.C. (“made of rich, dark bronze, with eyes of inlaid glass and ivory that gave the impression of a piercing gaze”) for reflecting the aging and imperfections of his face, unlike the flawless looks that Greek preferred. Although 20th-century scholars would question whether the bust was Brutus or some other illustrious Roman, for many centuries “the features were uniformly read as reflective of Brutus’s unyielding dedication to republican principles,” Coates writes.
Michelangelo’s “David” is Coates’s primary inspiration, and the sling David used to defeat the Philistine Goliath infuses her story, sometimes too overtly. “Throughout history, various kinds of metaphorical slings have enabled individuals and societies to rise like David above seemingly insurmountable difficulties and reach impressive heights of achievement,” Coates writes. Ah, those metaphorical slings! Democracy is one of them, Coates explains, and she ties the sculpture’s creation to the politics of Florence, Michelangelo’s home town.
Florence was at the center of Renaissance culture — think Dante, Boccaccio, Leonardo da Vinci — and was funded by the city’s status as Europe’s financial center. Though a republic, Florence was under the sway of the Medici family (Michelangelo’s early patrons) and deteriorated under the dictator Savonarola. Later, Piero Soderini restored the republic and commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt the Israelite shepherd-warrior from a massive block of marble. The statue of David would serve “as a constant reminder to the Florentines to be on guard against losing the freedoms they had just reinstated,” Coates writes. As Michelangelo himself declared, “What David did with his sling, I now do with my drill.” Maybe a sling would have helped: Decades later the Medicis reestablished their dominion over Florence, and Michelangelo would spend the last 30 years of his life in Rome.
At times, Coates’s chosen artworks reflect colonialist or nationalist urges more than democratic ones. It is not clear, for instance, why the Elgin Marbles — the surviving sculptural ornamentations from the Parthenon that were taken from Greece by Lord Elgin, a British diplomat, in the early 1800s — find a home in this volume. In the author’s own words, their removal and transfer to Britain was “one of the most ambitious and controversial acts of cultural appropriation in history.” Coates’s conclusion that “the presence of the Parthenon sculptures confirmed that London was culturally as well as politically and economically the worthy heir to ancient Athens” is not especially convincing. Similarly, Albert Bierstadt’s painting “Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak” (1862), in which the artist depicts a Native American campsite nestled in the Wyoming Range of the Rockies, became more a symbol of American expansionism and Manifest Destiny than of democratic principles.
Two of Coates’s chosen works — Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat” (1793) and Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) — became broad, symbolic protests against political violence: the murder of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, and the indiscriminate bombing of a Spanish town during Spain’s civil war. With Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” series, however, Coates imposes a nationalistic vision of the artist’s work as a celebration of France’s victory in World War I — a vision that, in Coates’s telling, may reflect the views of statesman Georges Clemenceau more than those of Monet himself.
“David’s Sling” forces timeless questions: Why does the artist create art, and how does the purpose of a work evolve over time? Looking back, we can interpret art according to contemporary arguments or worldviews, but things get tricky if we begin assuming those views were an artist’s intent all along. It’s reminiscent of arguments over constitutional originalism, debates in which a certain senator from Texas has vigorously engaged.
Coates’s zeal for democratic transformations is intriguing given Cruz’s reluctance to use American power to promote freedom or topple nasty regimes. “Would it be nice if the progress of liberal democracy was an inevitable linear evolution in human affairs?” Cruz asked in a recent speech. “. . . Indeed it would. But even a cursory glance at the history of democracy in the some 2 1/2 millennia since the experiment was first attempted in ancient Athens reveals this is far from the case.” To keep America safe, he said, “we cannot treat democracy promotion as an absolute directive but rather as a highly desirable ideal.”
Maybe “David’s Sling” is consistent with this agenda. After all, art and politics converge in the realm of ideals and aspirations, and cultural shifts propel political ones. I do hope Cruz reads this book. He might develop a more expansive vision of how democracies are made and nurtured — or perhaps just reverse his plan to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.
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