Expressions of the People

Review: Victoria Coates, 'David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art'

Michaelangelo's David / Wikimedia Commons
Michaelangelo's David / Wikimedia Commons

We have not ended up where we began, with democracy. Our institutions of government, business of lawmaking, and notions about successful popular rule do not resemble all that closely the storied originals from Athens. The broad outlines of democracy are certainly still here—elections occur; liberty and rights are invoked—but democracy’s substance has changed. Democracy has become an expression, an imposition, even, of the self over other selves. It is not a call to order—it’s an impassioned cry.

The foregoing are not stated premises of Victoria Coates’s new book, David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art, but they do haunt it. The book’s purpose, she writes, is "to highlight the synergy between liberty and creativity, and so to bring a fresh perspective to both" by telling the human stories of ten works of art and architecture that are staples of introductory arts history courses. Outside the textbook, these ten pieces have also "acquired canonical status in cultural history and today stand as visible testaments to democracy."

An art historian by training, Coates hopes to lift these pieces from the web of professional art historian jargonese and academic critical theory so they are accessible to the public.

Each of these objects is part of an individual polity’s narrative and gives us a snapshot of a point in its history. Some are prophetic of future greatness, others more retrospective. All provide tangible evidence of history that in some ways is more reliable than texts, offering powerful insight into successive efforts to establish and sustain a democracy. They are not isolated aesthetic objects; part of their value as historical evidence derives from their role in the public life of the communities that produced them.

The public role played by the West’s most famous artwork is something that Coates, currently a national security adviser, has at the forefront of her mind. She stresses how the pieces she has chosen—in particular the Parthenon, St. Mark’s cathedral in Venice, Michelangelo’s David, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, the Elgin Marbles, and Bierstadt’s Lander’s Peak—were fostered or nurtured by free political systems and remain tributes to them, even while over time they have transcended their origins "to acquire a universal meaning." What kind of meaning? Coates emphasizes the moral power of a free citizenry and the responsibility to defend liberty against internal and external foes. These point to other common aspects of democratic art: the statesman’s role in commissioning public or official art, the benefits of economic competition, and the significance of independent or private artists making public statements about the polity.

Coates wants to cut through the mists of history and reflexive reverence (a different type of "jargon") for these works to get at the flesh-and-blood actions that brought them into being, lest we remain unengaged museumgoers. Through stories, she argues that the creation of great art and the activity of democracy cannot be sustained without conscious human agency, a bit of luck (also talent), and much hard work; her narrative shows how that most of the masterworks almost never happened, or were sabotaged, or were executed or acquired with a bit of creative subterfuge.

Her story about Michelangelo’s David is particularly compelling. Michelangelo was without a Florentine patron once Lorenzo the Magnificent died and the Medici family was banished. Leonardo da Vinci was the more famous (and handsome) of the two contenders for the commission. Michelangelo had a distinct lack of personal charm. The marble block itself was defectively shaped, seemingly defying the conventions of sculpture. Michelangelo famously incorporated the marble’s flaws into his sculpture, twisting the figure so the body faced the viewer but the head remained in profile, giving us the distinctive statute so beloved today.

The defect in the marble block, the small sling resting on David’s shoulder in the moment of concentration before the decisive act against Goliath—these are metaphors that drive Coates’ argument about the synergy between liberty and creativity. Both represent the weaknesses inherent in popular government that would seem to doom it to short-lived experimentation, as well as the geographical weaknesses of the places where such government has historically taken root—the rocky Acropolis, the marshes along the Tiber, a medieval market town, the Dutch lowlands, an island—which turned out to be "critical advantages" propelling them towards success.

Coates by no means thinks that free systems of government adhere to only one pattern, or that democratic self-governance is the only form of government that can inspire or produce great art. Her artistic specimens come from "a variety of practical manifestations [of democratic governance], from small city-republics to constitutional monarchies." While acknowledging such complexities, Coates curiously leaves untouched the most compelling aspect of the tension between artistic and political expression: that these iconic creations of democratic regimes show vastly different understandings of the nature and goals of democracy.

The first and last pieces of art reviewed by Coates are illustrative on this score. Coates begins with the Parthenon, the temple to Athena erected on the Acropolis under Pericles’ leadership of Athens, a public edifice much entwined with the Peloponnesian War. She ends with Guernica, Picasso’s 1937 mural for the Spanish pavilion at the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris, executed during the upheavals of the Spanish Civil War.

Both catalogue a moment or moments of violence that were communal, involving individuals on the scale of the entire polity. Yet they do not say the same thing about freedom and the individual, about the individual and government, at all. The 92 metopes of the Parthenon tell the story of liberty versus tyranny and barbarism. What is celebrated in the Amazonomachy, the Gigantomachy, the Centauromachy, and the Sack of Troy is the triumph of reason over animal passion. The strength of the democratic endeavor, says the Parthenon, lies in its orderliness. This is the teaching meant to be absorbed by the community and never forgotten. By contrast, in Picasso’s Guernica democracy is a melee of individual, disassociated symbols, crying out in unannunciated shock and horror.

In between these two works, the art of democracies has moved from representations of a people to a single individual (the David) to light and shadow and landscapes (Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, and Monet’s Water Lilies). If it remains true that there is a synergy between liberty and creativity, these variations remind the reader of an old argument: that a community’s way of life—its laws, authoritative customs, and symbols—are shaped by and shape in turn the character of its people. Both art and politics are expressive of the demos—but what each particular demos expresses can be as varied as a love of order that is not repression, or a license that is not, in fact, quite liberty.