07 October 2013

Anger & Humor in Politics - Thinking About Paul Klee

“Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”
- Paul Klee
Destroyed Labyrinth (1939) - Paul Klee

In an essay entitled "Anger: The Diary" (1999), philosopher Elizabeth Spelman suggests a distinction between the ways that humor and anger operate in politics. Humor - making fun of the powerful - disarms them; while, by contrast, when the oppressed, exploited or downtrodden express anger toward the powerful, they themselves are empowered. (Spelman also very nicely shows how emotions like anger are thoroughly entangled with reason. To be effective, for instance, anger must find its appropriate target and that process requires reasoning of s fairly sophisticated sort.)

In any case, this preview by Phillip Hensher in The Guardian of an upcoming Tate Modern exhibition of Paul Klee's work, which connects its humor to its politics, brought Spelman to mind. Hensher notes: "A small anthology could be put together of Klee's satirical jibes at power, emperors, soldiers and dictators." And those jibes, according to Hensher, deflate the powerful. As he explains:
He is the artist I love best in the world: I love his modesty and his resourcefulness, and his willingness to combat oppression and violence with laughter. His work reflects the idea of Milan Kundera, that the machinery of power works by imposing forgetfulness; that the way the individual can fight back is through laughter. At the time, nothing could have seemed more fragile and pointless a gesture against the armies of Hitler than a painting of fish, gawping at each other, by a Dessau art professor. But nothing remains of Hitler's power, and the structures he built are mostly dust. What certainly does remain is a little, tender picture of a garden; a sheet of luminous colours; music transformed into an image.
All that may be true of Klee. But Hensher's premise is that Kundera's assessment of our options in the face of tyrants and despots is persuasive. And that, as I've intimated here in the past, is questionable not simply as a matter of philosophical analysis, but of historical experience as well.

Twittering Machine (1922) - Paul Klee

Conqueror (1930) - Paul Klee

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