Amid the ceaseless, cascading grotesquerie of the 2016 US presidential election, the strange story of Victoria Gardner Coates was easy to miss. Having earned a PhD in art history from the University of Pennsylvania, Coates achieved minor notoriety as a conservative political blogger. This activity brought her to the attention of Donald Rumsfeld, the then defence secretary, who had by that point both sold and led the disastrous US war against Iraq. Rumsfeld appointed her to lead the team producing his memoirs.
Setting aside whatever scholarly ambitions she may have had, in 2012 Coates proceeded to work as an adviser to the ill-fated presidential campaign of Rick Perry. After stints at various right-wing think-tanks she returned to presidential politics, this time serving as the senior foreign policy adviser to Ted Cruz, who gained international publicity through his cartoonish bellicosity, boasting that he would carpet-bomb Isil until the desert sands glowed in the dark. Although Cruz was soon outdone by Donald Trump, that did not stop Coates from joining the current administration in a senior position at the National Security Council.
Coates’s appointment has generated little notice, despite her lack of any relevant experience in government. This may not be surprising given that many prominent posts are either unfilled or staffed by even more alarmingly unqualified personnel. Yet while it remains essential to keep such larger problems in view, it is also worth pausing to ask what it might mean for someone like Coates to be in her current position.
Could the appointment mark a break with Trump’s hard-won status as the world’s greatest vulgarian? Does it indicate his administration’s Machiavellian cunning or its rank incompetence, or both? And how might this tension relate to the internal fissures within the Republican party? Most importantly, how can we begin to understand the cultural implications of a Trump presidency, given the pseudo-populist regime’s resentment of anything it deems elitist?
In response to such questions, thoughtful people everywhere have rushed to read anything that promises some sort of insight: Trump’s first book, now disowned by its ghostwriter; the dystopian novels of George Orwell and Philip K. Dick; the ultra-nationalist, quasi-fascist writings of Julius Evola, which the president’s chief strategist Steve Bannon is fond of citing, if only to troll mainstream journalists. The irony is painfully obvious: a worldwide binge-read inspired by a president whose own ignorance is colossal, even by US standards. One believes him completely when he boasts of never reading books; his lack of intellect, even curiosity, appears to be total. Some conservative pundits have mused that Coates’s training in visual analysis might in fact be an asset, as the president reportedly prefers to be briefed using maps, rather than policy papers.
As it turns out, Coates is one of the few members of the new administration actually to have written a book. The book, David’s Sling: a History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art, rather ambitiously aims to provide something like a cultural history of the current world order. Moving from Greco-Roman antiquity to the present in ten concise chapters, each devoted to a canonical work of Western art, the book narrates the emergence, development and ultimate triumph of something she calls “democracy”.
Although David’s Sling boasts some of the trappings of critical scholarship, it was published by a commercial press and clearly targets a non-specialist audience. The style is rarely didactic, but is highly anecdotal and often exudes an unintentionally patronising enthusiasm (“Georges Clemenceau was the busiest man in Europe”). One can imagine Coates’s book being used in an introductory art-history class at a military academy or a small Christian college.
While the book’s structure and content are highly formulaic, its rhetoric is unusual, moving between pedagogy, art appreciation, political theory and patriotic boosterism. The dissonance generated is only amplified by the author’s decision to rely extensively on what she terms “creative but plausible reconstructions”: awkward, campy conversations between historical figures that come off like something children might be required to read in Sunday school. Among the many characters we encounter in this way are King David, Athena, Pericles and Michelangelo. Shifting freely as it does between history, scripture, fiction and myth, the narrative begins to suggest a somewhat Trumpian lability in regard to what can count as truth.
Few readers will be surprised to learn that this historical trajectory culminates in a distinctly US version of democratic capitalism, as if all the paths of world history led straight to the Hoover Institution. Coates’s account of democracy is indistinguishable from ideology, both in the everyday sense and the more specific terms outlined by Marx. While she makes occasional, discreetly worded references to limited suffrage, slavery, imperial domination, colonialism and class conflict, she considers these as unfortunate imperfections that should not detract from a noble ideal. In doing so she neglects to consider the core contradictions of actually existing democracy, or to question its relationship to possessive individualism, state power or legitimated violence.
Despite the book’s keenly felt, oft-reiterated passion for its topic, it fails to elaborate a consistent, persuasive argument about how we should understand historically specific relationships between culture and politics. The closest it comes is in clichéd formulations such as “great art [is] inspired by democracy”. Such bromides tell us nothing about how exactly art might mediate social, economic or political relations, or how the freedoms of art might supplement or differ from those afforded by democratic institutions. It does not seem to cross Coates’s mind that the ostensible liberty of the artist or the democratic subject can be predicated on forms of domination, or that the ideals of art, freedom and even democracy itself might be used toward profoundly unjust ends. Instead we get a series of variations on a theme, which come to seem increasingly tautological: it is great art that makes great democracies truly great; democracies are so great because they inspire great art.
Coates opens by citing the “miracle” of David’s victory over Goliath, using his fabled sling as a metaphor for the process by which putatively overmatched democracies use culture as a kind of weapon against their enemies (she also proudly notes that “David’s sling” is also the name of a new Israeli missile defence system, which she compares to art as an example of “human ingenuity” inspired by “liberty”). Given this celebration of martial creativity in the service of freedom, it is not surprising that in nearly all of Coates’s test cases art bears some sort of connection to warfare, the state, or both; apart from a chapter on Michelangelo’s David, the book includes chapters on the Parthenon, the Capitoline Brutus, St Mark’s Basilica, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, David’s Death of Marat, the Elgin Marbles and Picasso’s Guernica. No one medium, subject, or style is positioned as intrinsically “democratic”; instead, one is presented with a sort of melting pot of various canonical works.
In one sense this selection is uncontroversial (if also completely unimaginative), but in another it is extremely tendentious. By failing to mention any work made outside the West, Coates’s book models an unapologetic, unreconstructed Eurocentrism. Nor does it include the work of a single female artist. It is as if none of the critical revisions since the 1960s had ever occurred.
Further evidence of this bias abounds. The Republic of Venice is the “safeguard of the West”, due in part to its sponsorship of the Fourth Crusade; the destruction or theft of countless artefacts during the sack of Constantinople merits only a brief, matter-of-fact mention. The epigraph for the chapter on the Elgin Marbles cites an 1816 report from the British House of Commons, which rationalises the sculptures’ expatriation on the grounds that their Greek owners failed properly to appreciate or care for them. Coates goes on to defend their current place in the British Museum as a testament to Britain’s “admiration for ancient Greek democracy”.
When these instances are considered alongside the author’s validation of various allegedly democratic nationalisms, it becomes clear that the book is endorsing a Judaeo-Christian, Euro-American cultural exceptionalism, even superiority. This argument is subtle but pervasive, operating mainly through various forms of exclusion and bias. Coates never speaks in terms of whiteness, in part for obvious reasons, but also most probably because she does not have to. The thinly veiled white supremacy of her position would be deplorable under any circumstances, but it is especially troubling given how consistently Trump has manipulated racial anxiety, resentment and hatred.
The point is not to accuse Coates herself of racism, but rather to draw a clear connection between the sort of thinking her book represents and the actions of the regime she now represents. Claims of cultural exceptionalism and superiority have been used to justify any number of injustices or atrocities, some of which have been perpetrated by the very democracies on which this book lavishes such fulsome praise. (One cannot help but recall Rumsfeld’s glib attempt to rationalise his failure to protect Iraqi cultural institutions with the quip “stuff happens”, as if such matters were beneath his station.) This contemptible history extends into the present, as is clear in the rhetoric of the neo-fascist fringe groups on the so-called alt-right; one such group, Identity Evropa, illustrates its appeals to members’ sense of ethnic pride with the same David imagery that graces the cover of Coates’s book.
It would be wrong simply to equate Coates’s cultural politics with white supremacy or the “white ethno-nationalism” championed by the likes of Bannon and right-wing website Breitbart, who could not care less about art. But it would be equally mistaken to overlook the many close links between Coates’s book and the broader crisis of Trumpism, especially as this phenomenon will surely outlive the current administration.
At a time when many in the US art world are mobilising against institutional racism, structural privilege and cultural bias, books like this could yet serve a truly democratic function by showing how entrenched, widespread and typically unrecognised such problems are.
• Andrew Stefan Weiner is an assistant professor of art theory and criticism at NYU-Steinhardt. He writes on contemporary art and is an editor of the journal ARTMargins
David’s Sling: a History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art
Victoria C. Gardner Coates
Encounter Books, 328pp, $27.99 (hb)