The Artist as CYNIC: Sophie J Williamson Writes in Praise of Shamelessness

Article excerpt

In Greek philosophy, the scandalous Cynics eschewed conventional desires in favour of a simple life, practising parrhesia, the act of speaking freely, even if this posed great personal risk. Diogenes of Sinope, one of the most notorious of the Cynics, regarded the rules of behaviour towards bodily functions as contradictory; since there was no scandal in eating in the agora, he saw no reason why he should not also masturbate there, arguing that in both cases he was simply satisfying a bodily need, adding that 'he wished it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing the belly'. On another occasion, after having insulted Alexander the Great, he fearlessly proclaimed: 'In view of what I say, rage and prance about ... and think me the greatest blackguard and slander me to the world and, if it be your pleasure, run me through with your spear; for I am the only man from whom you will get the truth, and you will learn it from no one else. For all are less honest than I am and more servile.'

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The Cynics based their philosophy on the concepts of freedom (eleutheria) and self-sufficiency (autarkeia) or independence, believing that all decisions should be dependent on nothing other than oneself. Questioning collective habits and opinions, standards of decency, institutional rules etc, the Cynics opted for a completely natural lifestyle in an effort to eliminate all the dependencies introduced by society, refusing the Sophists' distinction between nature and conventions (physis and nomos), upon which ethics were founded. The word cynic (Hsikos) is believed to derive from the ancient Greek word for dog (kuon), as a result of the Cynics' lack of sexual shame in public. In living in this shameless manner, uncompromised by both legal constraints and social conventions, they merged the art of existence with the discourse of truth.

The practice of laying oneself bare has an established lineage in performance art, for example Marina Abramovic's The House with the Ocean View, 2002, when she lived in the gallery space on three open platforms for 12 days, Corneila Parker's The Maybe, 1995, where Tilda Swinton slept inside a glass vitrine among a museum display of the relics of historical figures, and Tracey Emin's 'Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made' exhibition in 1996 where she lived naked in a gallery for a few weeks at Galleri Andreas Brandstrom in Stockholm with only a bucket for a toilet while viewers watched through peepholes. Peter Osbourne's recent article in Radical Philosophy also interestingly used cynicism to interpret the work of Gunter Brus, such as his piece Clear Madness - Urination, Excretion, 1970, and other Viennese actionists of the late 1960s. However, these practices, in the safety of an art context and a performance timeframe, are rarely tested on a wider public or pose the outspoken risk demanded of parrhesia. In order to proclaim the truths they accepted in a manner that would be accessible to everyone, the Cynics believed that their teachings should manifest in a very public, visible, spectacular and provocative way of life. Accounts record that Diogenes refused to go to the royal court and only offered an audience to the king when he visited him at the barrel which he lived in on the street. Teaching through example and associated explanations, the Cynics intended their own lives to be a blazon of essential truths, which would then serve as a guideline for others to follow. Michel Foucault proposed the cynic philosopher to serve as a backdrop for a more general form of activism, coining the term 'philosophical activism'; an activism in the world and against the world.

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The agora's successor today is a transformed forum for discourse not only through the potential of physical spaces but also through continuously evolving communication technologies. …