Art and Democracy

Art and Democracy

Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, explores the slippery links between art and democracy

Following the very recent presidential elections in the world’s second biggest democracy (don’t forget India!) it makes sense to explore the connections between art and that system of government.

Victoria Coates, who combines being senior foreign policy adviser to former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz and a Renaissance art historian, did just that in her book David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art (2016).


Coates is highly readable and she’s mostly not as right-wing as I had expected, prudently wearing separate hats for maximum impact. Yet her case studies beg some pretty massive questions…

The Parthenon Marbles in 1816

I’m unconvinced, for example, that the British Museum’s controversial acquisition of the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles in 1816 meant that the sculptures ‘had found their true philosophical home in democratic Great Britain’ (Coates 187). The government of that time was one of the most reactionary in modern history. It opposed Parliamentary Reform (a fairer electoral system), the Catholic right to public worship and ‘Combination’ (trade union) membership for workers.

Greece was still ruled by the Ottoman Empire, though about to fight for her independence. Clearly she was in no place to have any say on the acquisition in 1816. Is the situation 200 years later any better?

An amazing coincidence?

Let’s stay with the Parthenon Marbles a little longer. One of the most remarkable coincidences in western civilisation is how the origins of democracy in the form we recognise today arose in Athens at almost exactly the same time as the radical stylistic transition from Archaic to Classical art.

Hestia, Dione and Aphrodite, from the Parthenon, East Pediment, c. 447-433BCE. British Museum, London. (Wikimedia Commons)
Hestia, Dione and Aphrodite, from the Parthenon, East Pediment, c. 447-433 BCE. British Museum, London. (Wikimedia Commons)

Pericles propounded democracy and he commissioned Athena’s new temple: wow!

Naturally we feel compelled to explore this nexus further. But the problem – as Coates’s account reveals – is that the subsequent connection between art and democracy is often highly tenuous; the ‘fit’ can be uncomfortable and sometimes downright unconvincing. Notwithstanding what happened on or about 449 BCE, art and politics have separate trajectories and indeed mindsets.

Are artists political?

Most artists (from Phidias to Picasso) are much more interested in art – and still more so in what other artists are up to – than they are in politics. And sometimes art can belie the politics: Victorian sculptor Hamo Thornycroft was commissioned to erect imposing statues of British imperialist heroes General Gordon and Lord Curzon, but personally held left-wing sympathies, supporting the strike actions of dock workers and match girls, and joining the Art Workers’ Guild as a founder-member.

General Charles Gordon, 1888, by W. Hamo Thornycroft. Victoria Embankment, London. (Robert Freidus, The Victorian Web)
General Charles Gordon, 1888, by W. Hamo Thornycroft. Victoria Embankment, London. (Robert Freidus, The Victorian Web)

A long non-democratic interlude

Democracy went through centuries of near extinction, arguably between the political murders of the populist Gracchi brothers in 2nd century BCE Rome and the American War of Independence (1776–83). Yet in this vast interlude we can take certain liberties and retrospectively recognise as democratic – however limitedly and imperfectly – the Florentine Republic, its political pride and identity epitomised by Michelangelo’s David, and likewise the civic pride of the Dutch Republic conveyed in Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (we’ll return to him shortly).

But to argue ‘good art = democratic [or even good] government’ is historically naïve. We admire Gianlorenzo Bernini’s amazing Baroque public art projects but have little love for the Counter-Reformation papacy; in turn, we may politically admire Bernini’s contemporary Oliver Cromwell, but British art really didn’t amount to much during his period in power.

For a comparison closer to home, few people in their senses would have preferred the political climate of late 19th century France – convulsed with revenge-seeking nationalism, religiosity and anti-clericalism, together with vicious anti-Semitism – to the Liberalism and participatory democracy of Kate Sheppard’s and R. J. Seddon’s New Zealand. But what about the respective nations’ art of that time? France wins, 62-13!

Richard John Seddon, 1902, by Samuel Grun. Te Papa (GH24121)
Richard John Seddon, 1902, by Samuel Grun. Purchased 2013. Te Papa (GH24121)

Three ‘democratic’ masterpieces in world art

Rather than writing a Politics 101 blog, I’ll get you to look at art and think about its democratic implications. Here are three fascinating case studies:

Oh Liberty, Liberty!

In Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, the French Romantic painter created an image that became a ‘widely recognised symbol of liberation’ following the fierce but brief uprising of 1830. Parisian citizens forced the reactionary King Charles X to abdicate. He was replaced by the significantly-named ‘Citizen King’ Louis-Philippe.

Liberty Leading the People, 1830, by Eugène Delacroix. Louvre, Paris. (Wikimedia Commons)
Liberty Leading the  People, 1830, by  Eugène Delacroix. Louvre, Paris. (Wikimedia Commons)

Delacroix deliberately introduces a social (indeed ‘democratic’) mix of Parisians fighting for their cause, from the bourgeois young man in the top hat to the urban worker, exemplified by the boy holding pistols. Centre stage is the monumental figure of Liberty, an ideal which along with equality is an essential component of democracy. 


Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937; Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid) is a painting of a century later, and an obvious choice in this discussion. It represents his impassioned response to the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War.  View the work on Wikimedia Commons.

Working at it furiously for 35 days in 1937, Picasso said: ‘The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death’.

‘The military caste’ means the Nationalist forces led by the ultimately victorious General Francisco Franco, aided by the Fascist powers of Germany and Italy. Had he lived just a little longer, Picasso would have witnessed Guernica’s symbolic move from the US to a belatedly democratic Spain in 1981; surely this would have delighted him.

Moore is more

During Britain’s darkest hour in World War Two when facing constant German bombardment, thousands of Londoners took refuge on underground railway platforms and even in tunnels. War can be a democratic leveller. The shelterers’ closely packed intimacy was enforced: often they were unknown to each other, and many people simply felt safer sleeping there.

Shelterers in the Tube 1941 Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986 Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
Shelterers in the Tube, 1941 by Henry Moore. Tate. Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

The very fact that in this and many other Shelter Drawings Henry Moore avoids being heroic (unlike Delacroix), or indeed sentimental, makes these people’s situation all the more believable, poignant and timeless. What’s more, they really looked like that, as photographs by Moore’s good friend Bill Brandt attest.

Art critic John Russell memorably called Moore ‘the keeper of the national conscience’ and in the Shelter Drawings we understand why. Many people naturally think of Winston Churchill’s inspirational rhetoric in the context of World War Two, but my hero is the understated – and equally democratic – Henry Moore.

Democratic art in Te Papa: going Dutch

What examples of ‘democratic’ art are in Te Papa’s collection? While the Dutch Republic of Rembrandt’s century doesn’t closely fit with modern ideas of democracy – it took the Patriot Rebellion of 1785 to assist that – there was far greater religious toleration compared with neighbouring countries, and indeed a kind of multiculturalism before its time. The latter was allied to trade. Tolerance towards foreigners wasn’t so much a virtue as a pragmatic necessity, it was all about making money. Highly commercialised Dutch art was in turn far less driven by traditional hierarchies of subject matter: genre painting, still life and landscape were all massive compared with their lowly-rated counterparts in France and Italy.

Beggar leaning on a stick, c. 1629, by Rembrandt van Rijn. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1961.Te Papa (1961-0006-23)
Beggar leaning on a stick, c. 1629, by Rembrandt van Rijn. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1961.Te Papa (1961-0006-23)

And you can tellingly contrast the near-contemporaries Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt in many ways: Rubens the Catholic royalist versus the more ‘democratic’ Rembrandt.

The pancake woman, 1635, by Rembrandt van Rijn Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-415)
The pancake woman, 1635, by Rembrandt van Rijn. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-415)

Whereas Rubens is justly famous for his 24 vast paintings depicting the undistinguished life of the monarch Marie de Medici, there are no depictions in his oeuvre of blind hurdy-gurdy men receiving alms, beggars leaning on sticks or women cooking pancakes – to cite just three examples of Rembrandt’s etchings in Te Papa’s impressive collection.

Millet’s Diggers

It is in 19th century French prints that we really see a much more recognisably modern democracy at work. There’s a defiance about the large, anonymous, heavily toiling diggers in Jean-Francois Millet’s etching of that name. ‘I believe in my fellow man, don’t you?’ he demands.

Les bêcheurs (The diggers); 1855-1856; Millet, Jean-François; etching and aquatint in brown-black ink with surface tone; paper; etching; France
Les bêcheurs (The diggers), 1855-1856, by Jean-François. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1952.  Te Papa (1952-003-161)

For precisely this reason Millet was considered a dangerous subversive by his well-heeled and often anti-democratic contemporaries. He reminds his audience that these diggers are voters too: France had granted all adult males suffrage in 1848, just seven years before Millet made this work.

None greater than Käthe

By the early 20th century the idea that even women might be safely permitted to vote no longer seemed outrageous. New Zealand, of course, showed that it was possible. And, as political theorist John Dunn notes, ‘Mass socialist parties with democracy on their banners could be left to compete with their rivals, if… not yet on equal terms, at least without constant harassment’ (Dunn 154).

A banner is held aloft in Käthe Kollwitz’s etching, a scene from her Aufruhr series, depicting the failed revolt of the Silesian weavers of 1844, brutally suppressed by the authorities. A measure of how things had moved in the interim half century was the recommendation that Kollwitz be awarded the gold medal of the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung (art exhibition) in Berlin, though approval was crucially withheld by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Aufruhr (Uprising) from Ein Weberaufstand (Weavers' Revolt), 1899, by Käthe Kollwitz. Te Papa (1981-0034-2)
Aufruhr (Uprising) from Ein Weberaufstand (Weavers’ Revolt), 1899, by Käthe Kollwitz. Purchased 1981 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds.Te Papa (1981-0034-2)

Kollwitz’s graphic power and her passionate social democracy – stopping short of communism – makes her a democratic icon of 20th century art. It isn’t by chance that her sculpture Mother and Dead Son was placed at the centre of the Neue Wache in Berlin, nearly fifty years after her death, as a monument to ‘the Victims of War and Tyranny’.

No bus shelter here

It’s definitely a relief to move from the traumas of modern Germany to the discomforts of freezing Aucklanders, depicted in Lois White’s No bus shelter here. Instead of painting the all-dominant New Zealand landscape, White focusses instead on issues of human, topical and sometimes religious interest.

She was a devout Methodist and a committed supporter of the Labour Party. Christianity and social democracy worked well together, and were famously exemplified in the ethos and achievements of the much-loved first Labour prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage.

So, what is the relevance of this here? White is surely advocating care and concern for her fellow travellers, and obliquely reminds privileged local politicians (probably car drivers) of their responsibilities to their constituents.

No bus shelter, 1960, by Lois White. Te Papa (1972-0002-1)
No bus shelter here, 1960, by Lois White. Purchased 1971 from Wellington City Council Picture Purchase Fund. Te Papa (1972-0002-1)

While the painting pre-dates J. K. Galbraith’s famous dictum of ‘private wealth and public squalor’, it’s a nice reminder of such an injustice which a democratic society neglects at its peril. Furthermore, it has special resonance for me as a public transport user today!

What do you think?

This was a question famously asked by Te Papa when it opened nearly 20 years ago, and in this blog above all it seems highly relevant. Should art and democracy be considered together, or does art really have a language of its own? Who impresses you as a ‘democratic’ artist? How does Simon Denny’s current installation, Secret Power, relate to this theme?

Answers and comments, please!

Further reading:
Victoria C. Gardner Coates, David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art (New York and London: Encounter Books, 2016).
John Dunn, Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy (London: Atlantic Books, 2004).


  1. Very thought provoking, thank you.

    1. Author

      Thank you Olwen!

  2. Very thought provoking, thank you.

  3. It could, nay, should be argued that one of the most democratic works of art also engaged the public as both participant and observer into critical areas of discourse – land tenure, public decision making and design, nature and culture, food production and native forest care.

    It is also in Te Papa’s permanent collection –

    Rosslyn Noonan, former Wellington City Councillor and Chief Human Rights Commissioner (NZ), said, “The cabbage patch … always seemed to me to reflect a special Wellington spirit which grew over the next few years and contributed to make Wellington the liveable, human city it became”

    Perhaps – other than discussion about already pumped up art reps like Denny it might be timely to remember that there is a robust and viable democratic history of people’s art even housed – but not yet displayed – within the permanent collection and archives of the nation at Te Papa Tongarewa… our place.

    Barry Thomas

    1. Author

      Thank you for drawing people’s attention to the Vacant lot of cabbages, Barry. I wish it had led to an allotment movement in Wellington. Parliament itself could benefit from a kitchen garden which would further humanise our city! Never too late, and your pioneering work is a reminder of what a participatory democracy should aspire to.

    2. Thank you Mark,

      Vacant lot of cabbages was four years ahead of Joseph Beuys and Agnes Denes work in planting wheat and Oak trees… NY and Germany 1982 respectively) So one can conjecture it was leading the way… not only in local allotments but in urban gardening, people’s parks, guerrilla art and gardening, occupation – as art – (sans permission)… and the now huge numbers of community gardens, gardens in most schools, berm plantings and the world wide trends around ‘Food is Free’ and community orchards, Tod Morden’s using of public land to grow food.

      One should write about the most popular park in Wellington which was purchased from private owners for the people of Aro Valley in c.1982. Aro Park is an almost direct descendant of the Cabbage patch occupation.

      Allotments are more aligned to the wonderful Pommy versions and the USA’s Victory Gardens movements of WW2… the young, elderly and Women left behind to grow food to feed themselves and fill cans to send the boys who were off slaughtering.

      The Cabbage patch poked a stick at authority, bureaucratism, private ownership and it kind of mirrored (and framed) cultural identity issues… acted as a physical focus for the ‘soap box corner’ as a work of living art… – a place perhaps like ‘our place’ should be, to speak, contest, dissent, debate – as a real and viable democracy should be.

      One could also make the claim thereby that the Cabbage patch is one of NZ’s most important works of art… internationally, politically, culturally. It has more antecedent properties than anything locally – or internationally comparable.

  4. Excellent discussion, Mark! And a great way to use a universal topic to focus on some splendid works from your gallery. I am particularly fond of the final image No Bus Stop Here that you have included and quite an astute remark regarding it. As always your writing is a joy.

    1. Author

      Thank you Mary Ann! Lois White’s art delights many people; I particularly like her earlier, very Art Deco works. It was terrific that she was ‘rediscovered’, after many years of neglect, in her old age, though sadly too late for her to start painting again.

  5. A timely and interesting piece Mark. Many thanks from Trumpland.

    1. Many thanks, Barbara. As for ‘Trumpland’, let’s just say that some democracies are more democratic than others. The Electoral College is an odd historical hangover, and should have been abolished years ago. Whoever gets the largest popular vote, obviously irrespective of party, should be elected, but do not expect America to endorse this in a hurry.

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