In the 4th century BC, Plato gave a starring role to his teacher, mentor and hero Socrates in a number of dialogues dealing with existential and ethical questions. Through these dialogues, Plato conveyed Socrates’ open-mindedness and capacity for lateral thinking with a clarity, directness and care that have kept Socratic philosophy relevant for two millennia, enabling readers and thinkers armed with the dialogues to grapple with the fundamental issues of life. Socrates, via Plato, offers an unfailingly productive intellectual method, which involves posing questions, not to elicit specific individual answers, but rather to highlight intellectual prejudices and provide a deeper understanding of the issues at stake. The Socratic method can reveal the futility or irrelevance of one’s starting point (Maybe that’s not the question), and expose an untenable worldview. The ruse of Socratic irony, in which the interrogator pretends to know less than their interlocutor in order to draw out latent truths and underlying beliefs, is an essential part of this process. It provokes further questions, and ultimately shakes the foundations of our comforting suppositions, enabling us to re-evaluate what we hold to be true.
In over 30 dialogues, Plato returns to the core themes of justice, truth and ethics. The question of how to live one’s life turns up in several dialogues as a reminder of the wider context within which specific topics are addressed. For Socrates, and indeed for many other philosophers in antiquity, the answer to this most basic of existential questions is encapsulated in a single word: eudaimonia. From the Greek eu– (good) and daimon– (spirit or demon), the term is most frequently translated as happiness, or flourishing, though it’s difficult to capture the full range of connotations of this ancient term. Socrates considers eudaimonia to be the ultimate human desire, more attractive than pleasure, power, strength or wealth. But how does one attain such a state? Here Socrates differs from some of his contemporaries and successors, maintaining that eudaimonia is guaranteed by virtue, and virtue alone. It’s important to note that this ancient conception of virtue is divorced of any notion of morality, and in this it differs fundamentally from our modern understanding of the term. In Socrates’ day, virtue encompassed morally neutral attributes such as physical strength and beauty, which today are relegated to the materialistic pole in the virtue/vice binary.
For Socrates, a flourishing person possesses the virtues of self-control, courage, piety, wisdom and justice. These are states of well-cared-for soul, perfected to a condition of true harmony. It is through a sustained and attentive process of self-interrogation, combined with virtuous living – a kind of life hygiene – that this heralded state of eudaimonia can be reached. The ongoing practice of questioning for its own sake, rather than geared towards a specific and definite answer, lends the platonic method a power to resist personal and political tyrannies.
Two and a half millennia later, the Socratic method has lost none of its creative potential. S Mark Gubb’s exhibition How should I live? (Maybe that’s not the question) invites us to ponder some of the beliefs we tend to defend against scrutiny. The show features works in a range of media including billboard posters, Bluetooth messaging, lightboxes and the more art historical medium of cast bronze. Each work is titled with a variation of the question/answer construction that brands the exhibition. In How Should I Live? (Maybe That’s Not the Question) – (Pura Vida) (2010), coloured lines on the floor sketch out the footprints of a trinity of buildings. The lines are set down with lane tape, a material used for marking out games courts. The work evokes the layering usually seen on a gymnasium floor, with its palimpsest of teams, allegiances and practices. In Gubb’s composition, the architectural footprints of a church, bar and football pitch are overlaid with a more elusive drawing made from black line tape, which describes a curving corridor meandering between two end lines that suggest doorways. What looks like an aleatory pathway in fact represents an abattoir’s killing room floor, along which animals are guided and prepared for slaughter.
The three buildings described in Gubb’s floor drawing schematise the Costa Rican concept of Pura Vida, which advocates a basic lifestyle. Pura Vida holds that a church, a bar and a football pitch are all one needs to create a town. The expression Pura Vida translates into something like ‘Good Life’ and serves as a catchall phrase: it’s a greeting or exclamation that works in all kinds of social situations. As a philosophy of simplicity, Pura Vida is seductive. Its combination of the spiritual, social and physical aspects of life echoes Plato’s doctrine of the soul, which describes three elements that make up our basic impulses: desire, reason and ambition. For Plato, these three elements must be kept in harmony in order to lead a virtuous life.
With How Should I Live? (Maybe That’s Not the Question) – (Pura Vida), Gubb offers a visual allegory of existence, in which stations dedicated to worship, entertainment and physical activity are circumscribed by the ineluctable journey towards death. The work stages a powerful tension between its material and content, nagging at underlying anxieties related to systems of control and aspirational living. The familiarity and nostalgic appeal of games tape can trigger disquieting memories, or highlight the problematic pedagogical management of individuals in schools. Add to this the supposed panacea of an idyllic existence, such as Pura Vida, and the result is a nagging confrontation between freedom and control, which is then cowed by the ultimate authority of the killing room floor.
The ideal of the simple life has seduced people in wildly divergent times, places and political systems, from ancient Greece to Costa Rica and even turn-of-the-millennium Britain. In 1993, as Britain was recovering from a severe recession, the Conservative party launched its ‘Back to Basics’ general election campaign for John Major. His victory ushered in a period of conservative policy and economic hardship, during which the heralded basics equated to swingeing cuts in many areas. But context is everything, and the apparent similarity between slogans such as between Pura Vida and ‘Back to Basics’ is not so surprising if we accept that the meaning of an utterance is acquired through its use rather than its structure alone. To highlight and exploit this undecidability, especially in relation to political propaganda is a classic postmodern device. What is new in our current day – and it’s a phenomenon that bears closer scrutiny – is the speed at which a given phrase circulates, how quickly its sense can morph, and how difficult it is to pin down its true intention. Slogans and buzzwords are dressed up in ever-changing cloaks of meaning by the worlds of public relations and corporate communications, which use rapid-fire technologies to disseminate them to insatiable audiences.
Gubb frequently uses propaganda as a medium, whether in the form of traditional promotional posters and placards or more recent digital technologies. For a series of works that hover around the exhibition How should I live? (Maybe that’s not the question), he uses Bluetooth, a technology that allows a transmitter to send messages wirelessly and indiscriminately to all Bluetooth-enabled devices within a certain radius. This technology has a wide range of applications, from promoting sales to customers in a specific place, to its deployment as a tool for psychological warfare. In an especially piquant example of instant communication, the Palestinian organisation Hamas used Bluetooth technology to message threats of extreme violence including ‘a shower of bombs on your city’ to Israelis within a given radius of their transmitter immediately following Israel’s recent bombings of Palestine.
During the run of the exhibition, Gubb sends a range of messages, which will be received by anyone with a Bluetooth-enabled device. People’s pockets buzz with images, statements or quotes chosen by the artist from a stock of phrases or typed up on the spot, inspired by his surroundings. Gubb calls these texts ‘little artworks that people can take away in their pocket’. ‘Actively at Work, Everyday’; ‘More Stock Means More Care’; ‘Happiness, Good Health and Success’: these messages seem to mean something, but it isn’t clear exactly what they are referring to. Their meaning is to be forged by the context in which they are received. Gubb communicates with his audience by circumventing any specific message, but rather by drawing their attention to the variety of meanings and connotations inherent in any linguistic construction, and highlighting language’s power to influence. Well aware of the ambivalence of the Bluetooth technology he uses, Gubb recognises that some people may find value in these messages while others will regard them as a nuisance.
Contemporary thinkers still grapple with the question of what makes a good life and its corollary, whether happiness is valuable as an end in its own right. For some, the intense state induced by the appreciation of art may play a part in producing a happy and flourishing state. In a recent article, the child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips put forward the theory that what makes children truly happy is to be captivated, to be fully in the moment, absorbed. And why should the same not hold true for adults? Phillips quotes a passage from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, in which a young child plays with tiny sea creatures on the beach. The boy is so fascinated by his microcosm that he becomes ‘absorbed beyond mere happiness.’ Admittedly, there is a sinister subtext to the child’s omnipotence in relation to the animals he manipulates, which Phillips doesn’t dwell on, but it is predominantly the fact of being involved something to the exclusion of mundane considerations that provokes in the boy a state of rapture.
This model of what causes happiness differs from the one proposed by Socrates in that it results from a state of utter concentration, rather than an ongoing process of existential examination. For Phillips, the constant self-questioning and auto-analysis that characterise contemporary culture dissipate our attention, erode our capacity for absorption and, ironically, prevent us from actually being happy. It’s just one way of answering the question of how to live, but along Phillips’s schema, a captivating work of art, film or piece of music may well be the most reliable route to a good life punctuated by moments of sheer happiness.
Answering the question of how to live might be a fool’s errand; trying to answer it can be an absorbing, fascinating and wise process. The circus performer in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, whose internal monologue provided Gubb with the title for this exhibition, may have been right in suggesting that asking oneself how one should live may not be the question. And perhaps it isn’t the question. But it’s a good place to start, and to launch a battalion of other questions whose assault on our entrenched beliefs might eventually yield surprising and fascinating results.