The Allegory of the Cave

And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,

“Better to be the poor servant of a poor master,”

and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner? — PlatoThe Allegory of the Cave (Exploring Plato’s Dialogues)

I’ve been reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave once again. Plato recognizes that art is powerful and therefore dangerous, and that it should be strictly controlled in order to serve the state. While we’re linguistically conditioned to think of the arts as “illuminating” and good artists as “bright,” Plato sees art as the shadows on the wall — shadows cast by puppeteers who are stumbling towards an imperfect representation of reality. While this is hardly a laudable way to interpret artists, Dr. Clowney of Rowan University suggests, “Think ‘media’, ‘propaganda’, and Entertainment Tonight, rather than ‘fine art’, and it is easier to gain some sympathy for Plato’s views.”

As if Plato needed further confirmation, if you glance at Michael Jackson’s trial coverage, you’ll see plenty of shadows dancing on Plato’s cave walls. In a 1992 article in ANQ, Lance Olson calls Jackson “a pale media-packaged Xerox of a Xerox of the Real Thing.” He is so multiply mediated, by plastic, make-up, by masks and umbrellas, by the directions he gives to his own personal videographer (who accompanied his triumphant entry to the courthouse where he entered his plea of not guilty) that he almost ceases to exist. While Olson notes that half a billion people apparently watched the premiere of Jackson’s “Black or White” video on MTV, a scant 12 years later, outside of Cali-phoney-a, there wasn’t exactly a groundswell of support for Jackson. Steve Gutterman reports that “plans to mount a major show of international support for the pop star failed to hit a high note on their first day Friday, as tiny crowds gathered in a handful of European cities” in gatherings timed to coincide with his arraignment.

Art is powerful and dangerous; at this point, the amount of time, effort, and intellectual energy that the world is investing in contemplating the significance of Michael Jackson’s latest antics is enough to make a philosopher weep.