What Is Democracy? An Experimental New Documentary Looks at the History of an Idea—and Offers a Ray of Hope
Astra Taylor’s new documentary What Is Democracy?, playing at the IFC Center in New York through January 31, is not about art. It has bigger fish to fry. But an art history lesson is at the heart of it.
In perhaps the key sequence of the film, Taylor, the filmmaker, stands with Silvia Federici, the Marxist-feminist theorist and author of the highly influential book Caliban and the Witch, in the chambers of Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. They contemplate late Gothic painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338), and discuss the lessons that the fresco holds for understanding the history and the fate of democracy.
Siena is the home to the world’s oldest operating bank. In the late Gothic period it was ruled by a local oligarchy, which commissioned Lorenzetti. The Allegory is a picture, in Federici’s telling, of this financial ruling class’s self-image as it takes form: the wise men of the moneyed class, attended by the figures of Peace, Fortitude, Justice, and Temperance on one side, defined against the chaotic rabble, ruled by a demonic figure, on the other.
At one point, Taylor and Federici inspect a detail: the figure of Justice, with a severed head in her lap, presiding over a group of bound prisoners, heading for execution. It is meant to show the rulers’ legitimacy and their role in keeping order, but Federici points out that we, as viewers, don’t know who the criminals are, or the nature of their crimes.
“I feel like you’ve created a new reading of the painting,” Taylor says. “Suddenly you have turned it on its head. Because what if these are not criminals but protesters, the true democrats?”
This small exchange about the Lorenzetti sums up, more or less, the spirit of What Is Democracy? and what makes Taylor’s serious and intellectually generous new film valuable: The spirit of looking closely at a familiar image, and maybe arriving at some new insights—through dialogue.