Clay and I took the train to Versailles on a sunny day. I hadn’t planned on doing the tourist attractions in Paris. I spent most of the time walking around listening to NPR, all the news from back home. I would stop in a café or at a park and write or just watch people go by. I had been to the palace twice before, had officially checked it off the list, shuffled through the ornate rooms, watched the water spill out of colossal fountains… The power of the building was exhausting. But my friend Clay wanted to go, he had the energy and the interest. And importantly—it’s free for students. So I decided to go back to Versailles to introduce Clay to Louis. Yeah, sure, I’d seen the site but I hadn’t really thought about it. This time around, I endeavored to understand how real the place is, how vast the space and true the history.
Waiting in the long queue with Clay, we talk about the swamp that once existed there and marvel at Louis’ indulgence in gold, the reflective metal located at all the high points of the structure. From a distance, we can see the marble court which remains from the original château of Louis XIII. But dull marble is far away and uninteresting, something you walk over to get closer to what’s catching your eye; the gold is overwhelming, it reflects the light, it dazzles. Wow. This is a weaponization of architecture, a display of power through the extravagance of the Baroque style. Something mystical and divine. And the inside is just as absurd. Every room revolves around the subject, taste, and glory of the king. It’s about one man and one man only.
And then the Hall of Mirrors. Designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, this corridor of reflection is the ultimate symbol of the monarch’s wealth and power. The walls are lined with mirrors, incredibly expensive at the time. The vaulted ceiling is painted by Charles Le Brun depicting the glorious diplomacy of Louis XIV. Servants passed through daily, diplomats waited here for the King, grand balls were held, everyone’s double dancing on the walls. It is a standing room and a walkway, simultaneously static and mobile, connecting Louis XIV to the rest of the world. In order to proceed to the King’s Apartment, you must follow your reflection along this hall, seeing not yourself but a figure passing anonymously through a supreme room. The space lauds the power of light, of the Sun King. It is an assertion of monarchical omnipresence that moves with you. Clay and I take a moment at the very beginning of the hall as I prep him, telling him to look in every direction; at every angle, there is something there.
The Hall of Mirrors seems so extravagantly old, so implausible and in the past. Maybe today’s Hall of Mirrors is a Twitter feed, Bernini busts look more like 140 characters, all caps, no punctuation. The Trumpian Twitter-sphere is less aesthetic and more temporal, certainly, a digitized parade of power. And indeed, more dangerous in its commonness, its banalty. While Louis XIV uses art to express his authority, Trump weaponizes media. Tweets are a faster currency, bite-size and easily perceptible assertions of power. And we laugh and are shocked and even discredit it for the quotidian nature of the vessel. These aggressions can feel less real, less official in a tweet. Dangerously quotidian. Louis moved away from the people, using the distance and the legend of his palace to represent his superiority. Trump, on the other hand, puts himself directly in your pocket. Each tweet a repetition of his crude and oppressive lexicon, commercialized political mantras. “Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy,” writes art critic John Berger. And Trump’s entire presidency is an extended advertisement. A hostile post by the president might be white noise by now, just a part of the humdrum of existence. We shouldn’t, however, forget that a Trumpian tweet is a cherub on the ceiling, a bust of a Roman emperor, brocade accents, something extravagant and wholly totalitarian. Trump whispers into the ears of the people, plants absurdity upon absurdity until there is something real and massive and glittering with gold right before us. And we’re left looking up at what he’s built. Wow.
President Trump capitalizes on the commercial, making the presidency a consumable spectacle, transmuting ideology to a social media product. Louis XIV used art and architecture in the same way. Art, however, is a realm towards which Trump is specifically unfavorable. There is still the sense in the US of ‘art as the entertainment of the elite.’ This combined with the doctrines of materialism and economic utilitarianism born from American corporate capitalism, there is a general lack of uproar over the financial precariousness of museums in the United States and the weakness of the National Endowment for the Arts. American museums rely mainly on philanthropy, which is an unstable, unreliable source and hinges on the satisfaction of a few key donors. When museums are not supported by the state, competition develops among art institutions, hindering the potential for cooperation between them. France, on the other hand, long ago inverted the Louis XIV hierarchies in art, giving art to the people. In the French Revolution the royal family is forced out of Versailles, the golden gate torn down, and, in a true statement of Republic, the art of the royal family’s Parisian residence (the Louvre) is designated public art. Radical.
The Revolution was a first step in democratizing art in France and opening it to the individual. Surely, the Louvre has lost a great deal of its revolutionary aura and standing as an idol for democracy, but it still holds potential energy. Public museums house the reflections, past and present, of the public. It is a space through which one can be educated by and meditate on cultural ideas. The consumerist culture that gave birth to a presidency of spectacle cannot coexist with the arts as a catalyst for greater reflection; creativity draws on the individuality and diversity of thought that separate material desires from spiritual ones. Art works to undo the commercialization and inculcation of popular ideology and demands self-reflection. What once was exclusively for and on the subject of royalty can now be a medium of individual meditation if access is available.
Art’s nature of asking questions is a dangerous one to a demagogic presidency. President Trump has long expressed his disapproval of art funding, even admitting that he considers art not only a waste of money to the government, but a waste of money to anyone. The NEA has been growing weaker for years, with its very existence threatened by proposals of official termination in the most recent United States budget report. Below is data from the NEA website representing the funds allocated to the NEA from 1966 to 2019. I have adjusted the data for inflation which reveals an average rate of change of negative 2 million a year.
To be sure, the art market is one dominated by collector-tycoons; a few big buyers investing only in a select group of reliably famous (and therefore valuable) artists. The NEA, however, is specifically not contributing to this top-heaviness in the market. The National Endowment for the Arts’ Strategic Plan presents its mission as attempting to invigorate “a nation in which every American benefits from arts engagement, and every community recognizes and celebrates its aspirations and achievements through the arts.” In fact, more than a quarter of grants are given to rural communities. The same 2019 budget report that proposes to eradicate the NEA suggests an allocation of $718 billion to the Pentagon; a five percent increase from the previous year and way more than they asked for. The NEA currently makes up 0.004% of the budget. Properly funded arts programs allow for the continuous reinvention of the standards of creativity which are paramount to the advancement of society and thought. To engage with creation, with art, you open the possibility of connection with ideas deeper than the perceptible. It allows you to reflect in a space that asserts your smallness and commands your loyalty.
Clay and I follow our reflections in the hallway flooded with 3 pm light. We stare up at the ceiling as we pass people taking mirror selfies, shuffle through the War Room, somehow miss the Peace Room, and end up slumped on a stone bench in front of the nearest fountain. Versailles having taken its toll, we begin our return journey. Underground, on the train ride back to our dim little Airbnb (no gold, plenty of mold though), Clay initiates a thought experiment. How long, he asks, do you think we would last down here in the total darkness? Would our eyes ever adjust? It was our way of reentering reality. We’re no Sun Kings. We discuss in practical terms how long the rat meat would last, whether we would cook it or eat it raw, or if, before we could ever get our hands on a critter, we would be driven mad by the darkness.
- Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London, England: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books Ltd., 1972.