Monday, September 27, 2010

Art with Meaning

The American Swedish Institute, a fabulous castle, sits on the corner of 26th and Park in south Minneapolis, MN and, on the south wall of this unique building, is the "Visby Window". This stained glass window is copied from an oil painting by Carl Gustaf Hellqvist that memorializes an incident that occurred in 1361 in the small city of Visby, Gotha, Sweden. King Valdemar Atterdag and his Danish troops had surrounded the town. The king sits in the square on his throne with hogsheads before him that the citizens are filling with their portable wealth, coins, jewelry and gold and silver plate. Danish troops in the background wait for orders from the king to sack and fire the town. In the foreground the mayor and his wife and children cross the square in humiliation, sorrow and rage.

Valdemar inherited a kingdom that had been bankrupted by his father and previous Danish monarchs. Upon accession his goal was to pay off the kingdom's obligations and restore it to its former glory. One of his methods was to do just as he did with Visby. The threat of violence was used to extort wealth from its owners, to be used by the extortionist for his own purposes. Valdemar is, at that point, the effective government of Visby and the residents are in no position to resist his demands. No doubt later he sent his men from house to house to search for hidden assets and probably offered rewards for information on those assets that may have set one neighbor against another. The Visbyians saved wealth was now gone forever. Valdemar didn't have the option of investing his confiscations in common stock or mutual funds. What wasn't spent in soldiers' pay and armour was kept in a locked room and doled out to buy the things he couldn't steal.

This work of art encapsulates the relationship between the individual and the state. Valdemar is the state, an entity that requires no cooperation from the individual to rearrange or negate that individual's private property. In the ensuing 650 years it has become easier for the state to accomplish the same things. Armed government agents in the US enforce tax laws; confiscate cars, real estate and currency; arrest and incarcerate those that they determine to have failed to forfeit what the state demands. There's really no difference between Valdemar Atterdag demanding the silverware of a Visby fisherman and the US government demanding its share of a truck driver's paycheck.

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