Senator Ted Cruz‘s presidential campaign staff consists of an expected mix of seasoned, conservative strategists, but it does includes one unlikely adviser, as National Journal‘s Nora Caplan-Bricker recently reported. Serving as national security adviser to the 44-year-old Republican 2016 presidential nomination candidate, Victoria Coates is also a former consulting curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art and an art historian who has published a number of essays and books on antiquity and participated in various conferences and symposia.
Coates, who grew up in a Republican family but told National Journal that she does not align herself with any specific doctrine, received her Ph.D. in art history in 1998 from the University of Pennsylvania, where she specialized in Italian Renaissance studies. She also lectured in the University’s art history department, co-teaching an interdisciplinary course titled “The Self-Portrait” that “pulled apart some of the tricks and props that artists used to represent themselves in literature, art, drama, and film.” She’s thus certainly an expert in promotional self-imagery and, as stated in National Journal, recognizes the layered perspective her art historical knowledge lends to her current career:
“If you’re an art historian and not a good foreign policy adviser, I could see it being a liability,” she says. But “if you’re a successful adviser, and know your subject matter,” then she believes the extra expertise “becomes an asset” — giving her, and by extension the senator, a broader and more creative way to look at the world.”
As she assists Cruz in gearing up for the 2016 primaries, Coates has been vocal chiefly on political matters — although her Twitter avatar prominently features a portrait of the Florentine banker Bindo Altoviti by Raphael. Since joining Team Cruz, however, she has far from neglected her passion for art history. Just yesterday, Encounter Books released her most recent publication, David’s Sling: A History in Ten Works of Art. The tome uses canonical artworks such as Michelangelo’s “David,” the Elgin Marbles, and Pablo Picassos’s “Guernica” to, per its Amazon listing, “examine the intersection of the fine arts and free systems of government in the Western tradition. The goal is to learn from history as we try to foster democracy today.”
David’s Sling marks Coates’s first major work that marries contemporary politics and art history. Previously, she was a regular contributor to neoconservative Bill Kristol’s The Weekly Standard and the conservative blog RedState, where she commented on national security under the username “Academic Elephant” (she did, however, devote an entire Christmas post to an analysis of Gentile da Fabriano’s “Adoration of the Magi”). In terms of academia, Coates has penned essays on topics ranging from paintings by Nicolas Poussin to Claude Lorraine and how he “used his social status to bolster his professional career.” She’s also done deep analyses of works from the Italian Renaissance: Benvenuto Cellini is a recurring subject, featured in one Renaissance Studies essay analyzing a passage from his autobiography and in another from The Sixteenth Century Journal on how Cellini’s language in that autobiography “masks his carefully calculated self-presentation.”
Coates has also studied events surrounding the 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius. Her essay in Pompeii in the Public Imagination from Its Rediscovery to Today also takes up topics of self-awareness and the creation of legacies, discussing Pliny the Younger and Angelica Kauffmann as figures with “a vested interest in making history.” Prior to that, she co-edited her first book, Antiquity Recovered: The Legacy of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as a follow-up to an exhibition she co-curated at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002. In her second book, The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection — co-authored with Kenneth Lapatin and Jon L. Seydl on the occasion of the same-named exhibition — she continued to explore her fascination with the historic eruption. Given her expertise on cataclysmic explosions, we’re glad Coates will be there to advise Ted Cruz.