Plato in Hollywood_Sal Rosken-Painting the Cobbler
Artists, Politics, and the Celebrity Elite.
“The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colours and figures. In like manner the poet with his words and phrases may be said to lay on the colours of the several arts, himself understanding their nature only enough to imitate them; and other people, who are as ignorant as he is, and judge only from his words, imagine that if he speaks of cobbling, or of military tactics, or of anything else, in meter and harmony and rhythm, he speaks very well -- such is the sweet influence which melody and rhythm by nature have. And I think that you must have observed again and again what a poor appearance the tales of poets make when stripped of the colours which music puts upon them, and recited in simple prose.”
- Plato, The Republic
We live in very uncertain times, times of great moral and ethical ambiguity; but of one thing there can be no uncertainty or ambiguity: there is no greater fool than he who ascribes even a scintilla of credence to the political opinions and social musings of those who earn their living playing Make-Believe - pretending to be persons who never lived, proclaiming words which were never uttered, in places that never existed.
There is a plethora of problems plaguing American society and culture, but none quite so corrosive or subversive to our society's values, integrity and overall well being than the undue attention, and unwarranted access to the media, afforded to those in the entertainment and artistic communities, whose societal perquisites and recompense far outweigh their collective contributions and importance to society.
A well worn canard, which has ascended to the status of myth, portrays a philistine American society inimical to Art with a capital “A” and devoid of Culture with a capital “C”; but never in the history of nations has a society so lavishly rewarded the undeserving, so inflated in stature the exiguous talent, so coddled the dysfunctional neurotic Ego, or so doted on the nonsensical, and uninformed utterances, outbursts and ravings of even the most self absorbed third rate entertainer, musician, novelist, or artist as has American society during the last century.
Far from being a society antagonistic to Art and the Artist, America has become regrettably an overindulgent, celebrity obsessed, Voyeur; willing to suffer the endless adolescent histrionics of it’s self proclaimed creative “geniuses” in exchange for a steady whisper of salacious gossip on their profligate matrimonial infidelities and self immolating divorces; or, for a furtive glance at the exhibition of their handcuffed celebrity “perp walks” to judicial arraignments for an assortment of felonious assaults, drug induced vehicular accidents, kleptomaniacal petty thefts and occasional trailer trash homicides committed behind the closed gates of Bel Air faux chateaux.
But it is a Faustian bargain - this ephemeral schadenfreude in exchange for the disproportionate influence, lavish existence, and undue attention, awarded those who are least prepared, intellectually, and temperamentally, to guide the future direction of the Republic; ; for the corrupting and ill advised political opinions, based on ignorance and prejudice, offered by these “Artistes”, using the platonic “colours of the several arts” to propagate their ignorance, has the potential, now more than at any time in history, of bringing the Republic crashing down upon our very heads.
As we rapidly approach the height of the political campaign season which precedes the quadrennial exercise of American democracy, at a time, like no other in our history, when the stakes at risk in that exercise are nothing less than the survival of our very Freedoms and Security, it is worth reflecting upon the qualifications, intelligence, knowledge, morals and sobriety of those who will be entering into the maelstrom of national public debate. An overindulged population of drug-addled hipster musicians, aging alcoholic and dyspeptic novelists, Hollywood High School dropout thespians, and Yale Drama School graduates with degrees in Theatre Arts and Film Studies, hardly presents a demographic picture of a citizenry equipped with the skills, knowledge or experience deserving of a leadership position in fashioning the Republic’s future.
The American populace has already experienced in the last six months a foretaste of what lies ahead in what will undoubtedly become one of the most celebrity infested political campaigns in American history. An unbiased observer of America in the 21st Century could, with some justification, be permitted a Joycean epithet and describe the Americans as a “celebrity-ridden Godforsaken race.” It would, of course, be of no matter were the stakes not as high and the consequences so severe.
If there is a silver lining to this darkening cloud of non stop celebrity political endorsements, star studded foreign policy pronouncements and Hollywood instant political punditry, it derives from the fact that this phenomena is by no means new, nor confined to America, although America does seem to be charting new territory in the ubiquitous and simpleminded practice of this phenomena.
In the 4th Century B.C. the Greek philosopher Plato, commenting on the destructive role of the imitative Artist in society, used the conceit of an artist painting an equestrian portrait to observe:
“Of the painter we say that he will paint reins, and he will paint a bit?”
“And the worker in leather and brass will make them?”
“But does the painter know the right form of the bit and reins? Nay, hardly even the workers in brass and leather who make them; only the horseman who knows how to use them -- he knows their right form.”
Plato was illustrating the principle that there are three levels of understanding – the highest and most profound level of knowledge resides with the equestrian who actually uses and understands the meaning of the bridle, who intimately and profoundly knows and utilizes the function of the rein and bit; a second but inferior level of knowledge resides with the bridle maker, who may fashion the rein and bit to exact specifications, yet not being an equestrian knows nothing of their true form or function; and lastly the third and most inferior level of understanding resides with the painter or artist, who neither an equestrian, nor a bridle maker, knows nothing of the bridle but it’s superficial appearance, and attempts, with colours of the several arts, to fashion a superficial imitation of the bit and rein to mislead those as ignorant as himself. Or as Plato, elsewhere, so succinctly puts it, “The imitative art is an inferior who marries an inferior, and has inferior offspring.”
To no one’s surprise American society has become infested with inferior imitative artists who, while expert in the imitative art of depicting the bits and reins of politics and foreign policy, know nothing about either the actual manufacture of them or their proper intended use. It is uncertain just how great an impact these inferior imitative artists will have in the democratic process, but it is reasonable to assume given the pervasive coverage provided them in a never ending supply of celebrity saturated TV talk shows, Entertainment Industry News shows, and Celebrity Lifestyle magazines, that their inferior opinions will have a consequential impact, and none of it for the good . Indeed, the Celebrities themselves presuppose a very significant influence by their actions; for why else would they go through the bother of performing their political Punch and Judy shows free of admission charge for an accommodating media?
What is most pernicious is not that the imitative artist should have an opinion on that which he knows nothing, but that his opinion should be cast broadly about, as in “broadcasted”. In a democratic republic the Artist, as private citizen, should be limited to the same venue for political expression, and that expression afforded the same limited currency, as that available to the average citizen in a democracy – letters to his elected representatives, and the voting booth - for the opinion of the celebrity should carry no greater weight than that of the average citizen; but by virtue of the media appetite for celebrity appearances, the ignorant public’s adoration of the celebrity for his imitative art, and the celebrity’s subversive and craven willingness to exploit his celebrity status for political purposes, a disproportionate influence results which must be recognized and countered.
Plato’s solution was to ban the Artist from the Republic altogether; so deleterious did he view their disruptive influence that he wrote, “we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small -- he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.”
While banishment from the State may seem severe to a modern reader, Plato did hit upon the crux of the issue: unrestricted exposure by the general public to the opinions of the inferior imitative artist will have a serious negative effect upon the future of the Republic. It is for this reason that, in a media intense society such as modern America, it is imperative that the inferior political opinions of the imitative artists be not only challenged publicly at every opportunity, but also exposed as the products of inferior knowledge “far removed from the truth.” Whether these challenges and retorts can occur regularly is problematic as the Celebrity Elite generally enjoy an immunity from political embarrassment and ridicule fostered by the economic interests of the media that profits from and protects them, but the effort must and should be made.
Despite their squeamishness at having their political pronouncements exposed as being “inferior and very far removed from the truth”, claiming incorrectly that every challenge to their views is an affront to their Freedom of Speech, the Celebrity Elite should not be spared the full brunt of political confrontation. Those who work to insure the vigourous state of the Republic’s health, through the rigourous vetting of political opinions for the inane and boeotian, have a duty to summon up for the whining Celebrities the liberal democrat Harry Truman’s dictum, “If you can’t stand the heat – get out of the kitchen.”
And so, as the political debates, primaries, conventions, and campaigns of the 2004 Presidential elections get underway; as the designer draped Celebrity Glitterati turn from their movie premiere strolls down the velvet roped, red carpeted runways to the tremulously held microphones awaiting eagerly, from their collagen infused lips, the complex political profundities and other pressing matters which have so strained their Botox deadened foreheads, it is well for each citizen and voter to reflect upon the admonition which Plato gives us: "we are well aware that poetry being such as we have described is not to be regarded seriously as attaining to the truth; and he who listens to her, fearing for the safety of the city which is within him, should be on his guard against her seductions and make our words his law."
Good advice for any Age.