It’s almost an insult to Victoria C. Gardner Coates to begin a review of her excellent David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art (published today by Encounter Books) by noting the author is the chief foreign policy adviser to presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz. Her intertwining history of art and democracy is far more interesting than any campaign tome I can think of (not a high bar, I know). Nevertheless, it’s 2016 and obviously Coates’ work is going to be getting more attention than normal because of her association with a potential president — and, in this case, that’s good.
Coates — no neophyte in the political world (she worked for Donald Rumsfeld) — is an art historian by profession with a University of Pennsylvania PhD, specializing in the Italian Renaissance. She has helped curate major exhibitions at the Getty Museum and elsewhere. In David’s Sling she brings her interests together, unpacking the complex relationship between art and democracy from the Athens of Pericles and Phidias all the way through the World War I France of Clemenceau and Monet and on into more recent times with Picasso and Guernica.
The many stops along the way are compelling, including such highlights as the links between the political conflicts and the artistic triumphs of the Dutch Golden Age and the vicissitudes of the French Revolution leading to Jacques-Louis David’s haunting bathtub portrait of his murdered friend Jean-Paul Marat, The Death of Marat.
The yclept David’s Sling is of course the (deliberately oversized) sling held by Michelangelo’s David in his battle with Goliath, explained by Coates as emblematic of the rise of democratic forces in the Florence of the Renaissance.
Though mostly Eurocentric, a section of David’s Sling concerns the opening of the American West and the role played by artist/photographer Albert Bierstadt. Difficult as it is to conceive now, almost no one really knew what the West even looked like before the Civil War. Bierstadt’s documentation helped change that — yes, there were mountains as magnificent as the Alps — and encouraged mass migration.
Reading Coates’ book, it’s hard not to think of what a continual battle it is to preserve democracy, how fragile our system is, seen here from the unique perspective of the art historian. Similarly, it’s hard not to think of today’s Europe, overwhelmed as it is once again becoming by totalitarian forces.
Whatever the results of those migrations, David’s Sling should be recommended reading for anyone headed for Europe today. It would make those obligatory trips to the Rijksmuseum, etc. more rewarding. I wish I had read it before my recent trip to Amsterdam. In fact, I would recommended it to anyone, scheduled trip or no. Despite Coates’ academic bona fides, David’s Sling doesn’t read the slightest bit like one of those boring art history texts one often encounters in college. It’s gripping.
Kudos too to Ted Cruz for choosing a person with such breadth of knowledge as a foreign policy adviser. It reflects well on him.