To better understand the autocratic ways of Donald Trump, British art critic Jonathan Jones offered a suggestion in the Guardian last week. He said to check out the tyrants who ruled ancient Rome – you know, guys like Caligula, Tiberius and Nero. To make his case, he cited the despotic emperor Commodus, who had a marble portrait made of himself that tells the story of the autocratic mind.
The emperor has no clothes
Jones points to the pose Commodus assumed for his portrait, an attempt to model himself after the mythic Hercules, his country’s version of ancient Greece’s divinity, who he considered his personal deity.
What you see is the emperor dolled up like a strongman down to toting a club for battering his detractors and a lion skin on his head. The image is meant to be that of a man invincible. Jones said that such a portrait parallels the strongman tactics of a strutting Trump, who delights in Vladimir Putin for being Big Brother to his people.
Look to the people who put Trump in power
Correlating an American president to Roman rulers simply in terms of their self-glorification doesn’t go far enough. Jones stopped at the similarities between their vanities (although he overlooked another allusion to Trump -- Commodus’ flabby face and over-barbered hair). Overlooked are the similarities of cultures. The society that put Trump in the White House relates mutually with that of Old Rome. A handy description of that ancient culture comes from archeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who wrote in his 1964 book “Roman Art and Architecture” that the ancients were materialistic, conforming and unclear where they were heading culturally.
The upshot was that their art amounted to pedestrian adaptations of Greek culture and did little to encourage – it even tended to hinder – evolutionary art. What you end up with, then, is art that is dull and derivative. And given the immense popularity of artists like Jeff Koons, American art seems to be following Old Rome’s model.
Someone should tell Trump that Rome fell
Wheeler also noted how artists in the days of emperors worked without credit. The sculptor of the Commodus portrait is unknown. Even so, the portrait is so mocking, you have to wonder how he (or she) got away with it. Evidently, whoever the #Artist was felt confident to lampoon the emperor, clearly aware of his blind vanity. But the fact that the artists remained anonymous says something about a culture, especially one in which portraiture abounds. The Roman patron, like Commodus, was the one who counted. Artists didn’t matter, and this seems the way Trump sees them, too, given his intention to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. #DonaldTrump