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A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI: THE BEGINNING
A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI was initially written and illustrated by Claudia Hart in 1995. It was inspired by Niccolò Machiavelli’s Renaissance treatise, THE PRINCE, the first book of political philosophy. Hart’s version began as a series of oil paintings and a small catalog, produced by the Realismus Studio at the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, Berlin.
A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI: THE BOOK
In the bookstore of NGBK, Hart fell in love with Comix, a back then radical form of comic books that filled one of their shelves. She read them, fascinated. There was no such thing as a graphic novel in those days. MAUS by Art Spiegelman, the Comix masterpiece, had just been released. Hart would stand around the NGBK bookstore, reading MAUS and other related works.
"I was a figurative artist interested in historical paintings, not comic books. Nevertheless, I was inspired," Hart says.
Her response was A CHILD'S MACHIAVELLI, born as a series of 31 oil paintings, where she rewrote the Renaissance treatise by Niccolò Machiavelli as a children’s book, speaking in the youth-speak of her time. She was reflecting on the real estate and cultural war taking place in the early 1990s in Berlin. Her aphorisms focused on the workings of power. But the strategy was the same as for all of the other works she has produced since the beginning: text combined with images. It is a series of aphorisms in an illustrated book that does not need to be read in order. Each painting was a unique piece that could be combined in any order. The book has proven prescient, prefiguring the brutal tenor of contemporary US public discourse.
The catalog was eventually released as an expanded hardcover by Penguin Edition USA in 1998. In addition, there was a Nautilus Edition German version published in 1996, and an Abbeville Press French edition published in 1998. At that time, Hart reinterpreted the oil paintings to produce the series of gouache paintings on paper exhibited at EXPANDED.ART.
Hart’s approach was typical of the 1990s art world. Mimicking the visuals of a picture book, she appropriated 1920s children’s illustrations known for their sugary sweetness. The irony and twisted humor of A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI are derived from its combination of opposites: the saccharine speech of kid’s books and the unvarnished reality of American politics. The book went out of print in 2000 but continues to be traded on the second-hand book market.
A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI: THE NFT
In 2019, Beatrice Books, a small experimental publisher, reissued A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI as a more contemporary book. At that time, Hart discovered among her files a series of Flash animations created for an ebook, the early 21st-century digital format that had long since disappeared, initiated by the production company Flicker Labs in 2010.
Flicker Labs used her original gouache paintings from 1995 to begin a series of Flash animations. Adobe, which created Flash, stopped supporting it in 2011, instead focusing more on HTML. Flicker Labs shut down. In 2020, Adobe reissued Flash as part of a new software called Animate. In 2022, at the height of the crypto bubble, she realized her old Flash animations could now be opened, so she transformed her technological castaways into NFTs. The animations were narrated by Hart using vocal recordings made in 2010, including sound effects and background music. With that last transformation, she ultimately produced animations that are brutal but true insights, standing as reminders that while technologies may come and go, human frailties remain the same.
ABOUT MEME CULTURE
"The other day, a little bird told me that my 30-year-old Machiavelli aphorisms were proto-memes.
If I were to believe this, I would have to accept the fact that I was unknowingly, in those days, some kind of meme pioneer. So not just a digital art one, but now also a meme one.
I can’t seem to shake what, to me, is this strangely awkward category, so I will just have to accept it. But I reject the idea of being proto, meaning a precursor. I actually think that the original version (THE PRINCE written by Niccolò Machiavelli in 1513) was the actual proto-meme; it is still being interpreted, shared, commented on, and adapted to the current zeitgeist, even now and by me.
My own interpretation of THE PRINCE was a small book that, at first glance, seemed to be for children. Apparently, I was teaching kids some VERY bad manners. But my real audience was adults. My intention with A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI was to translate Niccolò’s aphorisms into the vernacular of our time. My humorous versions were just early examples of memes to come. And to prove it, here’s a bit of serendipity: my Machiavelli interpretations were born in Berlin in 1994, at the same moment that Netscape Navigator went viral (but in California!). Meaning that A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI was born at the same moment that the Internet became a meme. The Internet is, of course, the meme of memes.
Now, getting back to that little bird. In English, the expression "a little bird told me" means that a little tweety-bird gossip (who must remain nameless) told me something or other. I think this is why Twitter uses a bird as its logo and why a post on Twitter is called a tweet. My Machiavellis do have certain qualities very related to those of that bird. The kiddie-drawing part of my hand-drawn-meets-Flash animations is the stylistic equivalent of a little bird. Like a little bird, my drawings are quite cute and sweet. To expand on this, I painted them in pastel colors to further sweeten their sugary, naive drawing style, and express the brutal honesty of the accompanying power-political aphorisms. So in my A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI animations, two opposites collide. Little-bird tweety sweetness and Machiavellian hardcore truth mix together: the childishly cute is combined with the reality of the adult world to form one single satirical creation.
A meme combines humor with a cultural, social, or political expression. The most powerful memes will always rise to the top and then eternally return. Sounds like THE PRINCE by Niccolò Machiavelli, right? What I did with A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI was to add a little spice and give power to all things Machiavellian: the will to power and the dynamics of personal relationships. From the past, to the present, and into the future.
– Claudia Hart, July 2023