Democracy, Tyranny, and Art

The Battle of Anghiari

How political and artistic freedom don’t always overlap

While shooting the movie The Third Man, Orson Welles, who played the main character, decided to improvise with the dialog and added the following rant to the script:

In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

It’s an interesting thought but it definitely doesn’t do justice to the Swiss.

To begin with, the first known cuckoo clock was actually a possession of August von Sachsen, who, like many other provincial German rulers during the Renaissance, had a penchant for sophisticated eccentricities.

The most significant Swiss invention to date is a set of fonts, which is more ubiquitous than Coca Cola. This set was created by Swiss typographer Max Miedinger in 1957 and was named Helvetica, after the Latin name of his homeland.

Today, Helvetica is the de facto standard in modern graphic design, spurred by the rise of the International Typographic Style. Like most things that claim universal appeal, it is bland, neutral, faceless, inexpressive and unemotional.

This is exactly why it’s so invisibly omnipresent. Helvetica is the default font on your iPhone. It’s used in logotypes for countless popular brands like Lufthansa, McDonald’s, Gap, Orange, Motorola, Panasonic, American Apparel, BMW, Target, J.C. Penney, Kawasaki, Zanussi… Even Arial, the font family that secretaries around the world have come to love and cherish, is a Helvetica rip off, Microsoft-style.

This ubiquitous typeface and the design philosophy that underlines it have a cult following which, in its attempt to purify modern design from any unnecessary detail, has reached a level of fanaticism that could make any suicide bomber blush.

If there is a dark side to democracy, as Orson Welles implied, it must be that sometimes, in a very ironical way, the cultures that thrive under it may develop striking limitations in their blind pursuit of compromise. By contrast, societies which are run by despotic and undemocratic principles may spark unparalleled freedom of thought.

Illustration: Peter Paul Rubens’s copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Battle of Anghiari. Allegedly from left to right: Francesco Piccinino, Niccolò Piccinino, Ludovico Trevisan, and Giovanni Antonio del Balzo Orsini.

This article was first published on Medium on August 16, 2013.

3 comments on “Democracy, Tyranny, and Art

  • Societies and civilization evolve in times of hardship and political unrest engenders great reactionary creativity; like the 1970’s and punk. Compared to the geological stability of Papua New Guinea where civilization has remained unchanged for thousands of years.

  • Insightful, indeed. А какъв шрифт използвате за този блог:)?(простете нетренираното недизайнерско око).

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