The Violent Artwork of Cleon Peterson

“I’m just trying to communicate strength and aggression through the least amount of strokes as possible.”

– Cleon Peterson, July 2016

When Andrew Breitbart asserted that politics is downstream from culture, he wasn’t saying anything particularly new. Plato’s Republic, in fact, took the political implications of art so seriously that it proposed a ban on all music and poetry. Yet Breitbart’s simple and pleasantly visual restatement of an old truth made it discernible and accessible to a large audience, one which Plato’s beautiful if somewhat inaccessible Greek was not. And with this opinion has come a predictable and distinctly Platonic interest, not merely in what art is being made, but in what art ought to be allowed.

With this kind of public sentiment building, it isn’t a pedantic digression to point out that such control wielded by the political opposite of a “philosopher king” is about as un-Platonic as one could imagine. It’s important because the control which the strangely democratic cultural authoritarians wish to exert requires a circumspective judgment that is generally a lot slower than we can emote.

Consider, by way of example, headlines like Paris Mural Artist Depicts Whites Getting Murdered, Raped, And Enslaved, a blog post with over 2,000 Facebook shares.

It may seem like picking low-hanging fruit, to bash on a blog that has passages like this:

This mural depicts a completion or near completion of the Hebrew-Masonic goal of European dissolution. The pure brazenness of this only exposes their complete arrogance and certainty of success. It is also worrying that this went completely unquestioned by the French and wider white European population, only indicating further that the population is asleep.

Or this:

Predictably, Cleon Peterson’s art also comes with a heavily anti-Christian theme. One picture shows a lone white figure on his knees praying, while multiple black figures prepare to murder him. Another shows a figure getting crucified upside down. This is a pure expression of the mind of the Hebrew-Masonic conspirators (the latter being the lackeys of the former) pushing the evil agendas that plague Western nations today.

But that is really the whole point. If you want to control the culture of society through restraints enforced by the state, these are inevitably the sort of people who will have the strongest opinions about what should and should not be allowed. Those without the circumspection required for good judgment on such matters aren’t inhibited by the doubts that other perspectives bring (a familiar phenomenon in cognitive psychology), and so their opinions will tend to be more influential and effective.

This author has clearly never considered that this minimalist and highly symbolic artwork (by the commenter’s own admission) might not be depicting the different colors of people literally. The black men and the white men may or may not be negroids and caucasoids; they could very well be the darker halves and lighter halves of a shared human nature, designed to convey the feeling of the darker half victorious over our better halves.

In either case — literal or metaphorical — artwork that depicts a phenomenon is not necessarily an endorsement of what it depicts. Picasso’s famous Guernica comes to mind, as do Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Who is going to say that Orwell supported totalitarianism because he wrote about it? And given the apparent racial overtones of the art, who’s to say that Peterson isn’t a rather extreme member of the Alt-Right, rather than a progressive leftist, and is trying to depict blacks as vicious barbarians that must either be evicted or destroyed? The fact that all of the interviews with the artist himself portray a rather apolitical, California skater-kid who just lets his anti-authoritarian, violent feelings out on canvas, is apparently beside the point.

So too, apparently, is the fact that some of his other artwork portrays black figures committing violence against other black figures, or white figures committing violence against whites. More interesting still, there appears to be more black-on-black depictions than white-on-white. In fact, the whites in the white-on-white violence don’t even appear “white” as they do elsewhere, as pure victims. If the interpreter insists on having some kind of coherent narrative lens to understand the motivation and thoughts of the artist, the metaphorical one is by far the more parsimonious.

A case could be made for a far-left interpretation of the painting, in which weak whites are inferior to the superior, African man. Or a case could be made for a far-right interpretation of the artwork, in which the African is an unrepentant savage and a beast. In terms of propaganda, the latter is far more effective, and even if the intent was the former, it will slip into the territory of the racial puritan’s favor. But neither of these interpretations are satisfying. They do not capture the whole of Peterson’s work, or the artist himself. They are both projections from frenzied, conspiratorial interpreters, painting their own black-and-white picture onto an artist simply conveying, in primoridal, Hellenic forms, an anti-authoritarian streak and an appreciation for the power of violence and aggression.

What this means for the cultural Platonists is that even if we are not libertarians (as I am not), we still ought to act as if we are civic libertarians on most matters that fall outside our realm of expertise, and even some matters that we do know a fair deal about. Criticizing artwork is, of course, just fine, but as every Platonist knows, criticism — like song and poetry — can have a powerful effect similar to that of the law.

Perhaps it is fittingly poetic that the solution to this Platonic paradox may be an Aristotelian one. Virtue ethics, and turning our gaze inward, rather than outward, to identify the problems in the world, is not only more effective, but may even eventually provide us with the requisite orientation and wisdom to become the philosopher kings of Plato’s dreams.

In short, Peterson’s art is not the problem.

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange was happening to you.

– 1 Peter 4:12

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2 comments

    1. Would you say that 1984 is an intellectualizing defense of totalitarianism? Or more poignantly in your case, Father Robert Barron’s appreciation for the atheistic criticisms of Religious theology to be a de facto defense of atheism?

      I think what you were trying to do in your piece was intellectualize an attack on art, not on rape.

      Like

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