Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi (spelling optional) is much in the news as a particularly notable example of the general ferment in the Middle East[1]. News channels, both classic and modern, carry breathless description of outrages committed by him, in his name, or in challenge to his power, all constrained by the limited access any Western organization has to Libya.

One subthread of that discussion concerns Gaddafi’s appearance, which is certainly distinctive. Stoaty concentrates on his face, but it’s worth remembering that he’s been around for forty-two years come September; I’m no judge of male attractiveness, but my mirror tells me I’m a good deal the worse for wear since 1969. That’s a sideshow, though. Put him in nondescript clothing on a modern Western street, or behind the counter at a stop&rob, and few would recognize him, although many would come away thinking, now where have I seen that ugly b*ard before? But that’s never how he presents himself. Moving among Westerners in business suits, where status is established by subtle distinctions in materials and tailoring, he shows up in a comic-opera dictator outfit, with quasi-military tailoring applied to bright colors, jingling medals, enough gold braid to blind in a strong light, and a hat that would please a Girl Genius jägermonster; the pictures we have of him hobnobbing with Arab leaders show him in something much more subtle, even casual, well-cut and -fitted outfits (still with a faux-military flavor) with muted decorations and insignia against robes and ostentatious displays of wealth. In either case he stands out like a collie at a cat show, and it’s impossible to conclude that it isn’t deliberate.

His behavior is cut from the same bolt. Blustery demands and showy behavior — a Bedouin tent (with modern upgrades) in the garden of the Hôtel Marigny, female bodyguards in camo or military-style uniforms, enough hot cars to satisfy Jeremy Clarkson; showy “covert” operations that somehow always lead back to Tripoli and its First Citizen; getting the U.S. Navy mad enough to bomb his house. At home, longwinded speeches to adoring crowds chivvied there by the police, mingling with the Common Folk in carefully arranged photo ops, massive public buildings with gold-leaf ormulu, and handing out largesse at random intervals.

It’s a mishmash of motifs from Byzantine emperors, Caliphate sultans, Russian czars, and every cliché of the Twentieth Century strongman, from the bright uniforms of South American militarists through Hitlerian motorcades and Soviet-style children’s recitals to Chinese flag-dancing, not omitting the architectural excesses of Ceauşescu. It is simply impossible to believe that a man so easily able to adapt his flamboyance to the circumstances in which he must operate could be so self-unaware as to do that in all seriousness. Kim, Mao, Hitler, Castro, and a host of others are or were consistent, showing the same face to all comers; it is the very adaptability of Qaddafi, calibrating his behavior to create maximum outrage in the audience before him, that screams conscious intent.

It’s performance and conceptual art, is what it is. Look out, Blue Men; never mind Dada; Christo was a piker. If Qaddafi falls and the contents of his palace become known, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find movies about about regimes, from Duck Soup through Sound of Music to Downfall and The Last King of Scotland, and well-thumbed copies of RoseLee Goldberg, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Ursula Meyer, and Joseph Kosuth among his effects. This is not to say the man had no serious intent, especially at first, or that his depredations weren’t as vile as those of anyone short of Pol Pot, but there is simply too much of an element of self-caricature there to assume he wasn’t at least partially aware of it. Even his fall, which now seems inevitable, combines the appalling, the comic, and the trite — partisans! confused, self-aggrandizing speeches! cheering demonstrators! machine-gunning the protesters! factions! abdications to Paris! umbrellas! secret police! hostages! executions! — in such conjunction as to make you wonder where the cameras are and where the director sits.

There probably isn’t much to learn from Qaddafi’s reign from a political science standpoint, but future historians (perhaps with time machines) will study it long and hard from an artistic standpoint. The man’s canvas was the world, his subject ruling, his methods drawn from eclectic sources and his own imagination. It’s really too bad he was such an ass. But, then, artists often are.


[1] Which is something of a misnomer, though useful shorthand for “places with longstanding domination by Islam”. The peoples of North Africa are identifiably Arab, but their culture and genetics are quite different from those of the Levant and Mesopotamia, just as Italy is quite distinct from Sweden.

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