The Art of Tyrants

Drottningholm Palace – one of ten owned by the Swedish royal family.

I have the travel bug, which makes me a sucker for travel shows. And one of my favorite shows is Rick Steves’s goofy yet wonderfully accessible travel series Europe Through the Back Door.

The theme of the show is to introduce American travelers to Europe in a down-to-Earth way that doesn’t insulate them from the “real” Europe by installing them in five-star hotels and the middle of bus tours fifty-people strong. Rather, the idea is to get out and get your figurative hands dirty by doing things locally, with as much contact with the inhabitants and their culture as possible.

A Sensitivity to Art
Rick has been traveling to Europe for thirty years and his repeated exposure to the continent has given him a passionate and empathetic understanding of Western art, which becomes apparent after watching almost any of his shows.

Something struck me while watching a recent episode about Switzerland which has had, as one of its many claims to fame, complete independence since 1648, a full 200 years before similar freedoms in other European countries. An incredible feat and one that sets the Swiss apart from almost all other nations. A result of that early independence, however (Rick points out), is a noticeable lack of grand–some would say grandiose–monuments, castles, gardens, and palaces.

Without a king or an emperor or a Holy Roman Church dripping with coin to fund artistic endeavors, the art of Switzerland is folksy, mild-mannered, low-pulsed. It’s a democratic art in a pure sense of the word: not politically democratic or even consciously democratic, but rather democratic by virtue of its lack of any other driving force. The art surfaces through its culture and people, not dragged out by a single institution. Populist is probably a more accurate word to use to describe it.

The Art of the Populace
This isn’t to say Swiss art isn’t wonderful or influential in its own way (and please note I’m using the term “Swiss” symbolically; I mean any populist culture). But…the monumental, stunning architecture and art that was the legacy of kings, princes, and popes is missing. There is no Versailles. No Drottningholms or Schönbrunns or Neuschwansteins or Kremlins. There aren’t even more secular or historical wonders: no Parthenons nor Pantheons, no Pont du Gards nor Colosseums.

In a long-standing democracy, concentrated wealth is lacking, leaving no room for patrons. Are there Swiss Shakespeares or Dürers or Boticellis or Bachs? There may be, but I haven’t heard of them. And if there aren’t, I think I know why: they were too busy in the fields and mountains, working hard for themselves rather than a monarch or church they could barely envision.

Unremarkable Egalitarians
This line of thinking makes me uncomfortable. Millions of visitors tour the palaces and gardens and schlosses I mention above, their dirty populist (read: peasant) feet treading the halls of the nobility. Their eyes and ears enjoy the fruits of hundreds of millions of dollars of patronage.

All of which is wonderful. But it’s specifically not what those princes and kings had in mind. These delights were meant for the elite, not the proletariat. And, since most of us belong to said proletariat, we–rather understandably–consider it a good thing that these despots were overthrown in order that we may scuff up their marble floors and take pictures of their bathtubs.

Here’s the problem: without those tyrants, there wouldn’t be any marble floors to scuff, no golden bathtubs to ogle. We can thank our lucky stars that we were born in a more egalitarian age than our predecessors, but what is it we marvel at when we go abroad? The bygone monuments to tyranny.

As a left-wing liberal and self-styled modern writer, I hesitate to say it, but I feel that if we found ourselves living at the tail end of two millennia of peace, harmony, and equality—and not the breathtaking asymmetry of power and wealth that marks most of our history–I’m afraid we’d have just one thing to show for it: folk art. And maybe good cheese.

The modern age has produced amazing artists, poets, sculptors, and writers. But has that been because of freedoms or in spite of it? Where are our Colosseums that will stun visitors two thousand years from now? Will our populist readers breed populist writers of never anything but middling talent?

Does it take tyranny to make art?


Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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Posted in Deep Thoughts, Travel

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