In a winter of severe illness and death, without the aid of vaccines or even anti-biotics, and during a global pandemic of Spanish Flu, in the winter of 1918-1919, one of the richest men in the world was working to merge the two largest circus acts in the country into one enormous show. In March 1919 he was successful, and the Ringling Bros. and the Barnum & Bailey Circuses became a single show that debuted at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The combined circus would become the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
After the merger, John Ringling would eventually establish the winter headquarters for his famous circus in Sarasota, FL. With his home base established, he continued to grow his empire. At one point, he owned all of the major traveling circuses in America. He also used his wealth to amass an impressive collection of old-world, Baroque masterpieces.
He originally kept his enormous collection of paintings and sculptures at his house in Sarasota, a Venetian Gothic palace named the Ca’ d’Zan (“House of John” in Venetian). It grew large enough to eventually warrant its own museum, which he built next to his mansion.
Since I sometimes pretend to be a man of culture, I risked a winter of severe illness and death to take my family to visit what is now known as the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Upon our arrival at the museum, we were immediately confronted by more people wearing N95 masks than I had seen in years.
One particular family stood out. A husband, wife, and their roughly 9 year old son were immediately ahead of us in the ticket line. I’ve grown used to this scene, and I did not think much of it until the boy began pulling at his father’s shirt and pointing at my children. It was beyond clear he was making the perfectly reasonable argument that my children were not wearing masks and he did not want to wear one either.
Of course, masking, and what you wear in general is a personal decision, a style choice I suppose. For many people still choosing to mask themselves and their children, I’m sure it isn’t done with a malicious thought. They – at least no longer – are concerned with unmasked people. They just don’t want to be sick themselves, and they think masks help in this regard. Public Health has fallen so far.
Though it may not be malicious now, it certainly was just a short time ago. My family was asked to leave an ice cream shop on Mother’s Day because we were not masked. We were expelled from our daycare of nine years because we asked too many times when they would allow their teachers to smile. We homeschooled our children because the school refused to let it go. We lost friends who called us evil and told us we would kill both our own children and theirs. Miraculously, we and everyone who shunned us are still alive and well.
The question entered my mind, how does one train a child to wear an N95 mask? It certainly must involve some sort of reward and punishment system. At the schools, the children were yelled at and punished if they didn’t wear the masks appropriately. Did this mother and father punish their child if he didn’t wear the mask? Why did the child choose to pull on his father’s shirt to protest rather than his mother’s? Was the masking a mutual decision between the parents, or did the father give in? Happy wife, happy life, right?
I will admit, it is beyond easy to immediately associate the masks with all of the excesses of the COVID Pandemic. There is a latent anger that attempts to bubble up: These people wanted me fired! These people wanted me in a camp! These people would have celebrated my death!
Yet there we both were; pretending to be cultured at an art museum; so different, but much the same.
We walked through John Ringling’s house and admired the intricate Baroque details and ornamentation. We marveled at the colored Venetian glass windows overlooking and embellishing the beauty of Sarasota Bay at sunset.
We made our way past the enormous Banyan trees, through the courting lovers frozen in stone surrounding Mable Ringling’s Rose Garden, and ambled on to the entrance of the art museum.
I’ve always found it interesting that most art museums always begin with the innate beauty of old-world art before confronting you with the sharp edges and abstraction of the modern art exhibits. My children wondered aloud how the two exhibits were related. They claimed that a mirror or tied together quilts was not art. I have never had a good explanation.
One of the old-world paintings depicted an old man yearning for death, hunched over and crying into his arms. There was a beautiful woman lying dead and naked on a stormy beach at his feet. Death had come too soon for her innocence, and not soon enough for his experience. It was quite moving, and I was brought back to my thoughts of the masked family in the ticket line, and to John Ringling’s legacy.
Ringling almost singlehandedly built all of Sarasota. He planned the subdivisions on the barrier islands and built the original Ringling Causeway bridge to get there. Sarasota’s unique culture of the arts with an Opera, Orchestra, several theater groups, and a public high school with its own circus all began with John Ringling.
The COVID Pandemic revealed an authoritarian impulse in the majority of the artistic community. I wondered if Ringling, who loved smoking Cigars, hosting garden parties with his wife Mable, and chose to expand his circus empire during a pandemic would have donned the N95s and shunned his friends. Would he have put the “Greatest Show on Earth” on indefinite hiatus?
The masked family was also there to appreciate his accomplishments and admire his art collection. I wondered if the painting of the old man had the same affect on them as it did on me. In their presumed avoidance of death and sickness would they avoid the sad fate of the old man or were they marching toward that fate unaware? Was I? Would either of us find the balance between the fates of the old man and the beautiful young woman?
After all, art is what lasts. It lasts because it expresses truth and inspires our own introspection. The fates of the old man and the beautiful woman are on canvas and fixed forever, but we are alive. We are capable of changing our own fate according to our efforts and our desires.
Ringling was born in a shack in Iowa the year after the Civil War ended. He began his circus career as a clown, but, through sheer force of will, built an entertainment empire. One of the richest men in America, he also lost all of his wealth in the crash of 1929 and into the 1930s. His circus grew to worldwide fame during a pandemic where pneumonia claimed many lives. He died, almost penniless, of pneumonia, in December 1936.
The Ringling Bros. Circus continued after his death. As time went on though, and the culture changed, animal rights protests, weakening attendance, and inflated operating costs had all taken their toll. The “Greatest Show on Earth” performed its final show on May 21, 2017. A new circus, complete with its own eccentric billionaire, was taking over.
In this new circus, clowns are now terrifying or supervillains bent on death, destruction, and retribution, just like the Joker or our politicians. Contortionists bend and flex the truth on our screens every night. Acrobatic protestors, in a spectacle, glue themselves to beautiful old-world art in museums. The new circus provides its own pageantry of skill, danger, and art, and the audience for it is growing.
Meanwhile, art museum attendance is below rates reported in 1992 and 2002. How much of that attendance is driven by students on field trips rather than genuine interest?
Googling, “Artists and Authoritarianism” reveals search results, every one of which, that explain authoritarians attack the arts, that artists play a distinctive role in challenging authoritarianism, and that the artist never adulterates his free expression to make it socially current.
Yet during the COVID years, the majority of artists were happy to support authoritarian measures and maintain their social currency. Only artists like Winston Marshall, Pete Parada, and Clifton Duncan among others never adulterated their free expression. Few of our artists are capable of creating art that provides revelation beyond what is already attainable by reason.
Thus we found ourselves at the mercy of those old-world artists who poignantly depicted scenes of their world and all the beauty and outrage of what had been done to it.
Beauty and outrage. There are plenty of both to go around.
We came around to the courtyard, where we found ourselves underneath a bronze replica of the Statue of David.
Interestingly, after its first public revelation in Florence, in 1527, the real statue was attacked by protestors with hammers and rocks rather than glue and bare-hands. The (anti-Medici) riot broke the statue’s left arm into three pieces. Not much has changed in a half-millennia.
All the complexities, contradictions, and riddles of human nature were present and still unresolved under the iconic contrapposto shadow of a statue symbolizing liberation and strength.
There we were, admiring our age’s beauty and outrage, purposefully displayed by a wealthy former clown who ran a circus and built a city. Life really is the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
This article is republished with permission from Variations on a Theme.