Plato

Benny and Friends by Chris Hall

Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini

For years I've held a secret fascination with dictators, perhaps ever since I first read Muammar Gaddafi's book of essays and short stories, Escape to Hell in 1998.  As someone who has always struggled to get by, struggled to be accepted, struggled with notions of autonomy, as someone who has always played the underdog, who has always been a big dreamer, but who has repeatedly had their dreams dashed and put down, learning about these dictators – many of whom have also come from a similar, humble background – has been something of escape for me.  Yet historically, most dictators have had a repulsive ideology and some have been outright criminals and monsters.  I also readily admit that even the very idea of a dictatorship government, even a benevolent one, such as Plato's idea of a Philosopher King, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  But still this fascination persists.  That someone can project their will over their environment with such ease, that the world can bend and have historical consequences based on their own volition, that kind of superhuman and god-like power is incredible to me.  I sometimes wonder what would happen if I had that kind of power, how I would use it for good instead of evil.  But then I realize that the world and the environment with which I would have my sway, is comprised of human beings, human beings who may have contrary and dissenting opinions.  I have no desire to make other people suffer, but for once it might be fun to not be one who is suffering instead.  Adolf Hitler was an artist, not a very good one, but an artist nonetheless.  Napoleon Bonaparte was a writer of fiction, not a very good one, but a writer, still.  Both came from humble origins – Hitler was even homeless in Vienna for a time.  Perhaps if we treated our creative types with more dignity and respect, they wouldn't turn out to be such dicks.  

Lately I've been sketching various dictators in my pocket notebook, in ink and marker, with the idea being that once I get a studio going, I may commit some of them to canvas.  In this way I continue my long tradition of exposing my darker side, taking a risk and telling my secrets, as it were.  I am no apologist for dictators and their deeds, but I do admit that this fascination exists for me.  It is a taboo subject for some, but still a subject worth investigating.  Sir John Dalberg-Acton once said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."  How could that not be a good story, in the tragic vein.  Napoleon, as a liberal revolutionary, was a hero, but slowly became corrupted to the point of becoming a paranoid, blood thirsty tyrant.  And as for comedy, who could not get a good laugh out such eccentricities as Muammar Gaddafi keeping an army of Amazon body guards trained in Kung Fu, or Hitler's habit of whistling the Disney tune, "When You Wish Upon a Star," or the ubiquitousness of all those ridiculous military uniforms covered with vanity medals.  This is rich territory to explore.  I hope people will have an open mind should I present a series of these works in a show, which, if it happens, I would like to call “Benny and Friends,” after Benito Mussolini.  Of them all, I think Mussolini is perhaps the most comical of the bunch, a bumbling over-reacher prone to exaggerated gestures when speaking, and like Vladimir Putin, has a penchant for having his picture taken without a shirt on.

Plato and Aristotle on Art by Chris Hall

Raphael da Urbino,  The School of Athens  (detail showing Plato and Aristotle), 1509 - 1511

Raphael da Urbino, The School of Athens (detail showing Plato and Aristotle), 1509 - 1511

Plato is not a big fan of art, and his works, particularly The Republic, are rife with complaints against it.  Plato thought all art was an imperfect imitation of nature, and that our perceptions of nature (remember that we are in Plato's cave, viewing the shadows of what is real on the wall) was already skewed and imperfect.  This makes art twice removed from perfection.  He did respect, however, the power art has in shaping people's thoughts and feelings, but he takes this respect to a dark place when he suggests that art should be regulated and censored by the wisest members of society, a ruling class of Philosopher Kings.  And what if these “wisest members of society” become corrupt?  And who decides who is the “wisest.”  Plato is in dangerous territory, and I can not follow him there.  I may distrust the masses, but I distrust the government and authority figures even more.  

Now, let's contrast Plato's perception of art with that of his student, the liberal Aristotle.  Aristotle thought art had the power to improve upon nature.  Aristotle also admired art's ability to persuade.  He thinks that art has the ability to convey universal truths, and that it can help us better understand our purpose and predicament.  If performed masterfully, Aristotle thought art could be a tool useful for inspiring people, for enlightening them on the consequences of foolish behavior, and that it could foster moral growth and the improvement of society.   No where in his writings does Aristotle promote censorship. 

Like Plato, I do believe that the wrong kind of art can be harmful for society, just as good art can be a benefit.   Because of the fallibility and subjectivity of human nature and aesthetic tastes, however, I can not ever support censorship.  And when used by the state, censorship can be an abusive tool for repression of political and personal freedom.  For these reasons, I will follow Aristotle's approach.