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, <a target="_blank" href="https://www.nationaljournal.com/s/71497/art-historian-advising-ted-cruz" …read more
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