Leaving Plato’s cave for his studio (1)

[Remarks written at the invitation of visual artist Eleanor Rappe* when in 2003 the University of Michigan hosted one of her major exercises in “fictional archeology,” Plato’s Studio: Fragments & Restorations (2001), a post-modern installation of the philosopher’s studio which included prints, sculpture, mosaics, potsherds as well as portraits of other classical philosophers.]

Eleanor Rappe’s Plato takes his rightful place next to the Platos of Heidegger, Gadamer, Vlastos, Castoriadis, Derrida, Nehamas, and Nussbaum, some of the philosophers who have been influenced by Nietzsche’s critique of Socratism. These Platos are quite skeptical about totalizing arguments, rather doubtful about absolute values, and sometimes closer to Socrates’ interlocutors in the dialogues than to most nineteenth century thinkers. Their claims are sometimes fragmentary, their views partial, their convictions qualified. And so are Rappe’s. She takes Plato out of the cave of his famous fable and puts him into a studio full of material forms, bringing his exploration of mimesis back to the light of day and placing it in a new context. This is like reading The Birth of Tragedy as the treatise of a composer, which of course it was.

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On a basic level, Rappe presents Plato’s geometrical, spatial, structural and other reflections on order: he is putting together, combining, connecting elementary forms to see how shapes, structures, colors fit. Primordial qualities are thus articulated and configured. The studio houses a pulsating experiment of artistic codification.

On the next level of Rappe’s exploration, beauty appears – not as an intrinsic quality but as a dimension of connections made. Since the term “synthesis” has been much abused, here “composition” will do. This is not beauty that enchants and seduces but a combination of elementary things that makes them work within an invented harmony. Beauty as harmony makes Rappe’s sense of the classical feel more akin to Protagoras, or even Heraclitus, than to any late Platonist, let alone Schelling.

On the last level, Rappe’s beautiful composition constitutes an installation that manages to become dramatic rather than theatrical by keeping at a critical distance both theatricality (Michael Fried) and performativity (Peggy Phelan).  This is important in two respects.  As we encounter this staged work, at no point do we think of the artist or of theory. Postmodern performativity may flaunt a persona and quote a source. Neither has a place in Plato’s Studio because the installation is staged in way that produces a very demanding milieu and invites a philosophically inflected response.

One cannot respond with one’s personal history because identity would sound irrelevant here. Moreover, one cannot respond with a source either because counter-quoting is ludicrous, not ludic. We are asked to comprehend the installation in dramatic terms, which may of course range widely from dialogue to dialectics to diaporesis and beyond. But what is it about, then–memory or fiction, restoration or forgery? It would be nice to affirm all the above, and proceed, but that won’t do. Not with a work of such graceful seriousness. So you either open your own studio or you try to rise to the philosophical challenge. You may look derivative but so does Rappe – and Plato, more than any fellow citizen.

By installing and coloring Plato’s studio, Rappe has forged a world of brilliant light and exquisite harmony that erases from memory the austerity of the Greek marble, the forbidding purity of blinding whiteness. Our eyes are filled with the joy of vibrant textures, the celebration of exuberant figures, and the whole begins to bring in other arts, such as dance and music, in a glowing affirmation of human inventiveness. In this studio, Plato embraces the arts of making, of creating the world anew, and does not fear their power because he realizes that they observe human-made proportion. A contemporary artist like Rappe who is worthy of that legacy, and indeed aspires to become part of it, inherits the studio and thrusts its door open, letting all of us in, and in the process answering the ultimate aesthetic question: the place of art in a democratic society is to teach a sense of measure that relates to justice and is able to resist hubris.

2003

* Well known for its construction of heterotopias like the mythical civilization at the installation Caerulea: Ruins & Restorations (1977), Rappe’s work reflects her studies of the visual and philosophical aspects of classical antiquity as both reality and symbol. The artist writes: “Antiquity, both real and invented, has been the primary focus of my work in all media. My objective is to create a metaphor for the passage of time by the use of as many accidental and arbitrary factors as possible.” Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933, Eleanor Rappe received a B.A. from Brooklyn College, a Master’s from Indiana University, and did further graduate work at San Francisco State University. She taught printmaking and painting and was Chair of the Art Department at City College of San Francisco before moving to Santa Fe. Rappe has been an active and innovative artist and printmaker whose art, prints and posters have been shown in numerous major national juried and invitational exhibitions in museums and universities as well as in solo exhibitions in the US and abroad, and are found in many public and corporate collections.

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