Saturday 26 January 2019

Mid-Western Adventures with Aristotle and Diego Rivera

In Great Company with Beard & Miller
An extreme week. On the downside, I got sick courtesy of United Airlines’ so-called air filters. The disgusting virus forced me to cancel a visit to lecture on ancient comedy at the Athenian Academy.  I hope they forgive me and invite me back soon.

On the upside, the launch of Aristotle’s Way in USA was a round of pleasant encounters, in which I felt acute Imposter Syndrome while visiting bookstores in Chicago and Detroit and the scholars of Northwestern, especially the great Richard Kraut, whose study of Aristotle’s Politics I last year named one of my five ‘best books’ on the philosopher.
Janet W. & Alyson Jones of Detroit's SOURCE Booksellers

Icing on the cake was a poisitive review in the New York Times, by Professor John J. Kaag of the University of Massachusetts. He had read every word and intuitively understood what I was trying to do. I’m even prouder now to have been named alongside him as authors of two of Nigel Warburton’s best philosophy books of 2018.

Sara Entrhalled by Rivera's Frescoes 
Aristotle thought long and hard about  art and why it needed an honoured place in public culture. I thought about his insight, in the Poetics, that great art allows us to learn, but with pleasure, during the week's highlight, which even head pains could not wreck. With my friend Professor Sara Monoson, I finally saw the Mexican Marxist Diego Rivera’s astonishing murals in the Detroit Institute of Art. Twenty-seven panels depict scenes inspired by Motown’s industries, especially the Ford Motor Company, at that time (1933) suffering from industrial unrest leading to violence and several deaths. 

The depiction of humans and machines, informed in part by classical relief sculptures such as the Parthenon frieze, is witty, beautiful and conveys Rivera’s wonder at the technology and productive forces of the factories. But it also questions the uses to which these could be put—poisonous weapons as well as medicine, war as well as civilisation-building, the oppression of blue-collar workers as well as the fruits of progress in which they could—up to a point—share.

Proud to Stand by Rivera's Self-Portrait as Worke
Controversy raged. Churchmen declared the Aztec goddesses and uses of biblical themes blasphemous. Industrialists disliked the unflattering depiction of bosses and middle-class onlookers. Henry Ford, portrayed on the west wall, seems not have noticed that he was associated with a Giant Ear, policing his workers incessantly, nor that Rivera’s own self-portrait, complete with star badges, a hammer and sickle-like curves, had turned the murals into a shrine to communism.

My favourite panel portrays the unborn child, in a fetal position, nested in the roots of a plant amid several geological strata. It is in the position the viewer sees first on entering the great mural room, high on the east wall, where the image of God is traditionally placed in the apse of a Church. Nature, labour, local history, art and the humanist expression of a hope for a better human future come together in a great Gesamtkunstwerk of heart-stopping intricacy and vitality.  It was worth the virus. I learned with pleasure. It will stay with me forever.

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