This is my favorite political painting: Apollo and Marsyas by Bartolomeo Manfredi, an image from the class wars, 1620 as well as today. This spoilt brat from the one percent, slightly flabby because of all the drugs and good times, but powerful and so damn worldly wise and dangerous. He doesn’t blink an eyelid while methodically skinning us alive, he’s rather curious as to how we’ll take it. What can we do? We stare inwards in a resigned sort of dignity facing the question: at what point did it go so completely wrong? We didn’t have a chance ever for a second, did we? A painting so to the point, it’s still the same confrontation and the same outcome 400 years later . . .
I’m not being clever, by the way, this is what it really is. Just try a quick search and you’ll reassuringly find that the Marsyas myth already played a symbolical role in the class struggles of late Roman antiquity and figured in the political stage plays of the time, and that later it was discussed in that light by historians such as Giambattista Vico in his New Science from 1725. Apollo stood and stands for the patricians, Marsyas the plebeians. Class confrontations are nothing unusual in the art of the time, even though they’re mostly interpreted more mildly. You will know Velázquez’ Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan from the same period (around 1630, see here a detail). It’s similarly obvious about the artist’s sympathies with down to earth natural dignity rather than the fop satirized by a halo of self-importance. Still the image is much more complicated and much less political. It is serious about telling the myth (the details of which don’t interest us here), and more than about class conflict itself it seems about a contrast between fancy decadent high art (Apollo the god of music and poetry) vs. the mythical blacksmith as an honest craftsman. So there is satire, but not the brutal urgency of the Manfredi. But then nothing I know really compares to that.
Anonymous. “More to laugh than to make you cry.” 5/28/12. <http://tonotfallasleep.blogspot.com/2012/05/class-wars-then-and-now.html>