Art, Blogging Round 2, Philosophy, Plato

Art As Poison

*** A philosophy paper that I think might be interesting to others beside my professor****

Learning to love Plato and his philosophies is no easier than Plato thinks learning should be. When studying Plato, it seems normal to experience confusion and amusement, to critique his sanity and end feeling a sense of appreciation that’s somehow suspended between the aforementioned emotions. Plato’s aesthetic theory is no easier to grasp, for it condemns art and reduces the artist to a mere “imitator”.  Because he believes that art is imitation, Plato contends that it corrupts the soul and poisons the mind.  Albeit harsh Plato’s aesthetic theory makes sense when one has a clear understanding of his theory of “the forms”.

The suffix “-ness” is generally used to form nouns out of adjectives. For example, from “kind”, “sad” and “wild” come kindness, sadness and wilderness.  With the “-ness” they become more abstract ideas and thoughts. Something that is sad is more concrete than a feeling of sadness. Sadness is an idea and a feeling and something that is sad is the manifestation of that idea. When discussing Plato’s theory of forms, it helps to add “-ness” to objects so that we can think of the idea or the “form” of that object. What is the difference between a chair and chairness?  Chairness is the idea of a chair, and is what Plato believes is the true and pure form of a chair. Plato believes that truth only lies in the realm of thinking and that these invisible forms represent truth. Plato doesn’t think that the physical world is the place that people should seek truth, but that it is more attainable in the mind and in the form of ideas.

According to Plato, truth, while not attainable in the physical world, is also not easy to attain in the mind. He believes that truth is the direct result of education, examination and cross-examination of ideas. Only though very hard work is truth attained and deception is the only alternative to the struggle of educating ourselves. Plato refers to education as a turning point of the mind from deception to truth. “Education is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it… Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately”(1).  Either we struggle and learn, or we are deceived by the world.

Chairness twice removed is where Plato’s aesthetic criticism begins.  If we imagine Plato’s theory of forms (“chairness”), as the origin of truth, then a physical representation of a chair would be “chairness” once-removed, a representation of the true form of a chair. In Book X of The Republic, Socrates writes a dialogue between he and Plato:

“‘And what about the carpenter? Isn’t he a craftsman of a couch?’

‘Yes.’

‘And is the painter a craftsman and the maker of such a thing?’

‘By no means.’

‘But what will you claim he is in relation to a couch?’

‘This seems to me the most even-handed thing to call him,’ he said: ‘an imitator of that which those others are craftsmen.’” (2)

According to Plato, if a painter paints a chair, then he has painted an imitation of what was already a representation of chairness. A painting of a chair is twice removed from the true form of a chair, and Plato believes this is deceptive – a painting is too far removed from truth and indulging in something inherently deceptive corrupts the soul and negates the difficult path to enlightenment and truth.

Imagine for a moment that Plato and Van Gogh coexisted; Plato would have never approved of nor appreciated the Impressionist art movement.  Impressionism rejected classical form because it demanded such precise and realistic representations of the world. Impressionist painters wanted to evoke emotion and express the “impression” of a particular object rather than paint it exactly as it is. Take for example Van Gogh’s Room at Arles (1889). Van Gogh rendered a table, two chairs and a bed in a small, blue room. A closer look reveals that the perspective is more than slightly off; the headboard seems to be at an angle in the corner, yet the base of the bed is straight, although proportionally much larger than it should be. The line where the wall meets the floor is uneven, the chair next to the bed seems to be balancing on one leg and the chair in the foreground of the painting seems to be missing a leg. These details don’t strike the viewer at first glance because we understand it as a representation and an impression of what looks like a quite comfortable bedroom. Plato would maintain that Van Gogh’s masterpiece is imitation, and that imitation is poison for the mind. “…Imitative art is somewhere far removed from what’s true, and it looks like that’s why it can produce everything, because it gets a hold of some little piece of each thing, and a phantom at that” (2).  Perhaps if Plato had degrees of discontent about painting, he may have a greater degree of discontent with classic painting than with Impressionism because it doesn’t contend to be a perfect representation of an object.  On the other had, Impressionism is more abstract in nature, knowledge of detail is vague thus the end result may be seen as more of a “phantom” than a true likeness would.  Regardless, Plato’s aesthetic theory draws the conclusion that a painter, what he calls an imitator, knows nothing of what is being painted except for the way that it looks, whereas he justifies a carpenter or creator as having worthy knowledge of how to build what a painter simply paints.

Plato’s aesthetic theory indefinitely ranks art in the lowest sense of truth.  At first, this idea feels awful and wrong, but the concept grows easier to swallow when it’s applied as a general way of analyzing what we see.  As an Art History major, I have a deep reverence for art while sometimes I have the feeling that the significance of art may be overrated.  Art is not the ultimate truth, but it also shouldn’t cease to exist like Plato contends.  I appreciate Plato’s aesthetic philosophy in the sense that it maintains the importance of critique, examination and a struggle for truth.

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