Socrates and Charlie Hebdo

Culture Secretary Sajid Javid got shot down in twitter-flames this week for referring to Socrates\’ writings, when defending freedom of speech following the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  The thing is, as any classically-educated fule kno, that Socrates didn\’t write anything; that was Plato.  Cue lots of sneering. 

Well, fair enough, though the two philosophers are more or less identical for all practical purposes: Plato didn\’t write anything but dialogues in which Socrates was the speaker, and Socrates\’ philosophy is only recorded in Plato\’s writings.

More interesting, to me anyway, was the thought that even if Socrates was executed by the Athenians for his atheistic opinions, and his \’corruption of the young\’, he was far from being a believer in democracy and free expression (indeed, his association with shady oligarchs may have been one of the factors that led to his downfall).

For example, Socrates would almost certainly have banned Charlie Hebdo.  In his discussion of the just city, The Republic, Socrates presents it as one governed by a paternalistic \’guardian-class\’ of warrior philosophers.  Later in the book, Socrates expounds his theory of ideals (sometimes \’forms\’, but I think \’ideals\’ is less confusing).  Put very simply, everything that we see in the universe takes its identity from its imitation of, or resemblance to, a metaphysical ideal.  A table is a table in as much as it resembles the ideal Table; something is good in that it resembles the ideal Good.

This theory explains why, controversially, Socrates exiles poets (and depending on your reading, other artists) from his Republic.  Their art is an act of mimesis, imitation, but worse than that – it is an imitation of an imitation.  My depiction of a table is a poor copy of a poor copy of the ideal Table.  Socrates also suggests that art, particularly effective art, inflames the passions, and is therefore inappropriate material for his serene and ascetic guardians.  Anyhow, one way or another, the artists have to go, and certainly the publishers of satirical magazines would have had to go with them.

Socrates\’ conclusion troubled Victorian admirers (who had been happily going along with the rule by warrior philosophers up to that point), and it worried his interlocutors too; Socrates admits uneasiness with his conclusion, and challenges them to find counter-arguments.

I was reminded of this stipulation when listening to a man being interviewed about the prohibtion on images of the Prophet Muhammed last week.  Generally, this prohibiton is understood in terms of the strictures against idolatry found in the Old Testament – we shouldn\’t confuse workshipping a God with worshipping an (imperfect) image (like the Golden Calf or the Fish-tailed God Dagon, whose followers are so enthusiastically smitten in the Bible).

The interviewee went further, explaining the prohibition in strikingly Platonic (or Socratic) terms: Muhammed was such an excellent, virtuous and handsome man, indeed the ideal Man, that any attempt to portray him is bound to fall short of the reality, and will therefore represent a slander on him.  Plato (or Socrates) could hardly have put it better himself.

To be honest, I\’m not sure what this shows.  Perhaps it is a) that if you throw enough classical education at people, some is bound to stick (however imperfectly) even 25 years later; b) that if you follow any metaphysical theory far enough, logic will lead you down some curious cul-de-sacs; c) that those who die because of expressing their views are not necessarily liberals; and d) that irrational prohibitions are not the exclusive preserve of the abrahamic religions, but can be found in \’rational\’ Greek philosophy too.

Old Flo, the Bamiyan of Bow*?

In a bland blog in the Huffington Post, Tower Halmets Mayor Lutfur Rahman defends his plans to sell off Draped Seated Woman, the Henry Moore sculpture erected in an east London housing estate in 1962.  The article runs through predictable bromide about ring-fenced funding, Tower Hamlets\’  record in providing affordable rented housing and his electorate\’s support for the sale.

But Mayor Rahman makes an interesting point in passing: \’if only there was as much national media interest in the fact that we are being forced to make £100million cuts by 2015, as there has been over the proposed sale of this sculpture to mitigate the effect of some of those cuts.\’  There is something slightly uneasy about the intense focus on the sale of this work of art, when the material conditions for the people of Tower Hamlets, where more than fifty per cent of children live in poverty, are so poor and receive so little coverage in the media.

Of course there is more to it than that (and you can worry about poverty and cultural deprivation).  The sale of the sculpture (affectionately known as \’Old Flo\’) is understood by both sides of the argument as symbolic.  On the one hand it betokens nostalgia for post-war \’nothing too good for the workers\’ social solidarity that also gave us the magnificence of the Royal Festival Hall.  On the other hand, there is impatience with this nostalgia, which is largely (but not exclusively) being expressed by middle-class liberals like me: when will we start protesting as loudly about poverty and exploitation; when will we value flesh and blood, as much as bronze?

The comparison needs to be cautiously made, as Tower Hamlets is not the Afghanistan, but the terms of the debate remind me of when the Taliban government of Afghanistan blew up the great Buddhas at Bamiyan in 2001 – an act that scandalised the world.  The Taliban said that they did so after Swedish scholars offered money to repair the statues, but refused to let it be used instead to provide food for starving children.  Their gratuitous act of vandalism was a dynamite retort to westerners worrying about material heritage more than current poverty.

The sale is probably a done deal now, and a scandal of sorts. The issue is what sort of scandal it is: one of a callous council ready to sell its heritage for a mess of pottage, or one of tough choices between selling artworks, or cutting back services, exposing to greater risk local people already leading precarious lives.

* or Stepney, actually, but the rhyme works better if shifted a little further eas

Triumph of the bland

David Runciman\’s talk on the politics of three London Olympic Games at Queen Mary College last week was amusing and enlightening. In 1908, Anglo-American relations became strained – the English felt the American\’s habit of training was unsporting – and the organisers kept the prices high to deter dangerous crowds of the wrong sort of spectator.

In 1948, the tone was one of austerity (athletes had to hire towels if they didn\’t bring their own) and restraint. The malnourished English took a perverse pride in the fact that the national anthem was only heard five times (opening and closing ceremonies, and three gold medals), compared to Berlin in 1936, where Deutschland Uber Alles and Horst Wessel had rung out continuously.

The 1948 Olympics were also the last Games where medals were awarded for artistic endeavour. The quality of entries was mixed, to put it politely: no medals were awarded for music, and the sculpture that won gold was a heroically anodyne piece by Gustav Nordahl called Homage to Life (photo, right, Bengt Oberger).

Runciman compared this inoffensive couple to the heroically striving ubermenschen whose representations triumphed in Berlin in 1936. A retreat to the bland was understandable if not inevitable given the horrors of the previous 12 years. Together with an irreparable fracturing of consensus on what constitutes \’good\’ art, nervousness about the appropriation of sporting iconography by fascists signalled the end of art as a competitive Olympic activity.

Even today, sport-inspired art tends either to the heroic or the apologetic, to the apotheosis of man and the spirit of \’36, or to mushy statements of universal brotherhood (see Invictus, though I doubt I will). The International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne manages to combine both (photo, above left, IOC/Juillart). Leni Riefenstahl casts a long shadow.

An archaeology of advertising

Metronet, the PPP consortium struggling to stay solvent while it operates and upgrades London Underground\’s Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines, doesn\’t have many fans.

But either Metronet, or one of their sub-contractors, seems to be running a rolling exhibition of antique advertising, which has been carefully left in place as posters are stripped back in the public spaces of Victoria Line stations. Towards the end of 2006, this exhibition hovered at Oxford Circus. Now – for a limited time only – it is at Warren Street.

The posters at Warren Street seem to date from around 1989 (on the basis of the release dates of Wilt and Ghostbusters 2), though one for Whitley\’s Shopping Centre could have been dated from the 1930s. They look incredibly antique: bright blocky colours, wordy captions, and none of the sly irony that we have come to expect over the past 20 years. The overall effect is as alien as the garish supplements about investment opportunities in former soviet republics that sometimes fall from the Sunday papers.

Normally, advertising on the underground is just unwelcome visual noise (now even clumsily imposed on the minimalist Jubilee Line extension escalators), but these posters are worth a view. So, hurry, hurry, the opportunity to enjoy these blasts from the past is strictly time-limited.

Within weeks, the posters will be gone, and Metronet will have begun to \’improve\’ Warren Street Tube, with its usual glaring striplights, bargain-basement tiles and tacky wipe-clean wall panels.