The Owl and the Tyrant: Aesop and Domitian between Geta Brătescu and Melissa Vogley Woods

This is my last Sunday of ‘Minus Plato Today’ and, typically, it is the hardest day to squeeze in a post. As with today, I usually have less than an hour to write, and so I often post something suggestive and less fleshed-out than on other days. While many Minus Plato posts are the result of a gradual thought process about what I should write, some days, like today, I am lucky enough to be given the topic of my post via a momentary engagement with the experiences of someone else. For example, this post stems from seeing my friend, artist Melissa Vogley Woods’ Instagram post about the Geta Brătescu exhibition The Leaps of Aesop which she saw at Hauser & Wirth in New York.

I first encountered Brătescu’s work at documenta 14, both in Athens (at EMST) and in Kassel (at the Neue Galarie), and I was excited to see, from Vogley Woods’ post, that some of the work was included in this exhibition with a Classical reference as the title (e.g. the wonderful video, The Line). Looking online, at the press release and elsewhere, I found several explanations for this reference to the legendary ancient fabulist, Aesop (you can read them here and here), as well as a drawing by Brătescu depicting Aesop.

Yet, because it was Vogley Woods’ Instagram post that had directed me to Brătescu‘s Aesop, I couldn’t help but relate this discovery to her own work, especially as we have recently been in dialogue about a series of paintings she has been working on relating to the place of Domitian in Rome (see her work Semidome Projector, 2017 below, as well as an installation shot at the Columbus Museum of Art at the end of the post).

 

Here is how she describes her interest in this emperor and his home on the Palatine Hill on her website:

The arch in my work is based on the semi-domes that proliferate the Flavian Palace on the Palatine Hill. These semi-domes were added by Rabirius, the architect for the Emperor Domitian, to project divinity onto the ruler as well as sealing off the space behind him. Here the arched space functioned as a speculative insular and isolating form and was meant to project the ruler’s future divinity. Arches, vaults and domes are in conflict with the folded forms as they represent systems that the forms navigate…The semi-domes of the Falvian palace became to root of this forms introduction into my work as a stand in for power, protection, patriarchal systems that warp both femininity and masculinity and as forms to project one’s will into the future.

When I saw her Instagram post this morning, I couldn’t separate Vogley Woods’ focus in her own work on these forms of power and patriarchy, with the way that Aesop’s fables were important tools for authors writing under the oppressive regime of Domitian. For example, Dio of Prusa, a Greek orator and philosopher, who wrote a series of lectures called Discourses under Vespasian and Domitian, and was exiled by the latter, used Aesop’s fables as part of his way of teaching the audiences he was lecturing to. Here is an extended quotation from Dio’s 72nd lecture on how certain philosophers of his day are not really wise, but only have the appearance of philosophers.

And there are those who think that Aesop too was somewhat like the Seven Sages, that while he was wise and sensible, yet he was crafty too and clever at composing tales such as they themselves would most enjoy to hear. And possibly they are not wholly mistaken in their suppositions and in reality Aesop did in this way try to admonish mankind and show them wherein they were in error, believing that they would be most tolerant toward him if they were amused by his humor and his tales — just as children, when their nurses tell them stories, not only pay attention to them but are amused as well. As the result, then, of this belief, that they are going to hear from us too some such saying as Aesop used to utter, or Socrates, or Diogenes, they draw near and annoy and cannot leave in peace whomever they may see in this costume, any more than the birds can when they see an owl. Indeed, this is why Aesop composed a fable which I will relate.

The birds came together to call upon the owl, and they begged her to withdraw from the shelter afforded by the human habitations and to transfer her nest to the trees, just like themselves, and to their branches, “whence,” they declared, “it is actually possible to sing a clearer note.” And in fact, as the fable has it, they stood ready to settle upon an oak, which was just then starting to grow, as soon as it should reach its prime, and to enjoy its green foliage. However, the story continues, the owl advised the birds not to do this and not to exult in the shoot of a plant whose nature it is to bear mistletoe, a bane to feathered folk. But the birds not only did not applaud the owl for her advice, but, quite the reverse, they took delight in the oak as it grew, and when it was of proper size they alighted on it and sang. But because the mistletoe had grown on it, they now were easily captured by the men and repented of their conduct and admired the owl for her advice. And even to this day they feel this way about her, believing her to be shrewd and wise, and on this account they wish to get near her, believing that they are deriving some benefit from association with her; but if they do, they will approach her, I fancy, all in vain and to their cost. For though that owl of olden days was really wise and able to give advice, those of to‑day merely have her feathers, eyes, and beak, but in all else they are more foolish than the other birds. Therefore they cannot benefit even themselves; for otherwise they would not be kept at the bird-catcher’s, caged and in servitude.

Just so, though each of us has the garb of Socrates and Diogenes, in intellect we are far from being like those famous men, or from living as they did, or from uttering such noble thoughts. Therefore, for no other reason than because of our personal appearance, we, like the owls, collect a great company of those who in truth are birds, being fools ourselves besides being annoyed by others of like folly.

In addition to sending Dio into exile in 82 CE, Domitian would later banish philosophers from Rome (in 94 CE). Thus, Dio’s recourse to Aesop’s fable (a fable that we only have thanks to Dio’s lecture) of the owl, especially the idea that the birds who failed to listen to the wise, philosopher owl, would become enslaved, would seem to allude to the anti-intellectualism of Domitian’s regime. At the same time, the way that Dio transforms the fable into a critique of contemporary philosophers, who only have the appearance of owls/wise people, but are, in fact, more foolish than other birds/people, here we see Vogley Woods’ attention to the representation and dissemblance of power in the form of the semi-domes and arches in her paintings.

At a time when the Republican Tax Bill in the House would cut tuition waivers for graduate students, meaning that they would be taxed on money they never see, leading to an untenable 300% increase in their taxes, this and other attacks on higher education mean that now more than ever we need to pay attention to the facades of power and their brute patriarchal undermining of intellectualism in all forms. It is for this reason, I believe, that I wrote this post today not squarely focused on Geta Brătescu’s The Leaps of Aesopbecause I needed to make a distinction between the mere reference to antiquity in the form of the name Aesop (no matter how thoughtful or focused), to the practical politics of animal fable enacted by Dio under Domitian and as mobilized in Vogley Woods’ uncovering of the long history of the deceptive mechanisms of patriarchal power.

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