Platoís Theories of Art


Plato had a love-hate relationship with the arts. He must have had some love for the arts, because he talks about them often, and his remarks show that he paid close attention to what he saw and heard. He was also a fine literary stylist and a great story-teller; in fact he is said to have been a poet before he encountered Socrates and became a philosopher. Some of his dialogues are real literary masterpieces. On the other hand, he found the arts threatening. He proposed sending the poets and playwrights out of his ideal Republic, or at least censoring what they wrote; and he wanted music and painting severely censored. The arts, he thought, are powerful shapers of character. Thus, to train and protect ideal citizens for an ideal society, the arts must be strictly controlled.


Plato's influence on western culture generally is a very strong one, and this includes a strong influence on the arts, and on theories of art. In the case of the arts and aesthetic theory that influence is mostly indirect, and is best understood if one knows a little bit about his philosophy.


Plato saw the changing physical world as a poor, decaying copy of a perfect, rational, eternal, and changeless original. The beauty of a flower, or a sunset, a piece of music or a love affair, is an imperfect copy of Beauty Itself. In this world of changing appearances, while you might catch a glimpse of that ravishing perfection, it will always fade. Itís just a pointer to the perfect beauty of the eternal. The same goes for other Essences, like Justice. Anyone knows that Real Justice is too much to hope for in this corrupt world. The best you can find is a rough approximation. To take a third example, the most carefully drawn circle turns out to be irregular if you inspect it closely enough. Like The Point, The Line, and all geometric shapes, The Circle is a mathematical ideal. It is not possible to draw a Real Circle, but only an imperfect physical copy (or instance) of one. (If you have ever striven to achieve an ideal, you may have have some sympathy with this part of Plato's philosophy.)


Beauty, Justice, and The Circle are all examples of what Plato called Forms or Ideas. Other philosophers have called them Universals. Many particular things can have the form of a circle, or of justice, or beauty. For Plato, these Forms are perfect Ideals, but they are also more real than physical objects. He called them "the Really Real". The world of the Forms is rational and unchanging; the world of physical appearances is changeable and irrational, and only has reality to the extent that it succeeds in imitating the Forms. The mind or soul belongs to the Ideal world; the body and its passions are stuck in the muck of the physical world. So the best human life is one that strives to understand and to imitate the Forms as closely as possible. That life is the life of the mind, the life of the Philosopher (literally, the lover of wisdom). Self control, especially control of the passions, is essential to the soul that wants to avoid the temptations of sensuality, greed, and ambition, and move on to the Ideal World in the next life.


Of course there is a lot more to Platoís philosophy than this; but this is enough background to begin explaining his views about the arts. (For more on Platoís philosophy, visit the library, or check out the online Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Plato had two theories of art. One may be found in his dialogue The Republic, and seems to be the theory that Plato himself believed. According to this theory, since art imitates physical things, which in turn imitate the Forms, art is always a copy of a copy, and leads us even further from truth and toward illusion. For this reason, as well as because of its power to stir the emotions, art is dangerous. Plato's other theory is hinted at in his shorter dialogue Ion, and in his exquisitely crafted Symposium. According to this theory the artist, perhaps by divine inspiration, makes a better copy of the True than may be found in ordinary experience. thus the artist is a kind of prophet. Here are some features of the two theories:



Art is imitation

This is a feature of both of Plato's theories. Of course he was not the first or the last person to think that art imitates reality. The idea was still very strong in the Renaissance, when Vasari, in his Lives of the Painters, said that "painting is just the imitation of all the living things of nature with their colors and designs just as they are in nature." It may still be the most commonly held theory. Most people still think that a picture must be a picture of something, and that an artist is someone who can make a picture that "looks just like the real thing". It wasn't until late in the nineteenth century that the idea of art as imitation began to fade from western aesthetics, to be replaced by theories about art as expression, art as communication, art as pure form, art as whatever elicits an "aesthetic" response, and a number of other theories.


So art is imitation. But what does it imitate? Here is where Plato's two theories come in. In the Republic, Plato says that art imitates the objects and events of ordinary life. In other words, a work of art is a copy of a copy of a Form. It is even more of an illusion than is ordinary experience. On this theory, works of art are at best entertainment, and at worst a dangerous delusion.


A moment's thought will suggest a way of building a more art-friendly theory out of Plato's philosophy. What if the artist is somehow able to make a truer copy of the Forms than our ordinary experience offers? This theory actually appears in Plato's short early dialogue, the Ion. Socrates is questioning a poet named Ion, who recites Homer's poetry brilliantly but is no good at reciting anything else. Socrates is puzzled by this; it seems to him that if Ion has an art, or skill, of reciting poetry he should be able to apply his skilled knowledge to other poets as well. He concludes that Ion doesn't really possess skilled knowledge. Rather, when he recites Homer, he must be inspired by a god.


The Ion drips with sarcasm. Plato didn't take the "art by divine inspiration" theory very seriously. But many ancient, medieval, and modern artists and aestheticians have found it irresistible. After all, aren't artists often inspired? Doesn't their creative genius often produce wonderfully surprising results, about which the artist will say, "I don't know how I did that?" Most important, don't artists show us the essence of things, and reveal truths that we wouldn't otherwise see?


The view of the artist as inspired revealer of ideal essences fits well with the spirit of Plato's Symposium, a dialogue full of speeches in praise of Love, in which Socrates gives a compelling picture of the ascent from sexual love, to the aesthetic appreciation of beautiful bodies, to the love of beautiful souls, and finally to the the contemplation of the ideal Form of Beauty itself. The same spirit fills much classic Greek art. Late classical sculpture presents gods and heroes as ideal bodies, built in perfect proportions, and filled with a cool repose, as if they inhabited a perfect and changeless divine world. The classical ideal of the artist as capturing an essence has continued to exert great power, from the Renaissance rediscovery of the Greek canons of proportion to the twentieth century sculptures of Constantin Brancusi, the paintings of Piet Mondrian, and the color theories of Vasily Kandinsky and the Blue Rider (der Blaue Reiter) group.


The idea of the artist as divinely inspired, or even possessed, has also persisted to the present day. Some of our most common art vocabulary derives from this idea. For example, the word "music" derives from the Greek Muses, the demigods who inspired an artist's work. The notion of "genius" is originally the same; your genius was your personal daimon or inspiring spirit. There are countless paintings from the Renaissance which depict a genius of this sort, or an inspiring muse; and there are some which combine the ideas of inspiration and imitation, showing an artist or musician contemplating a divine ideal, and producing art as a result. An example, which may appear a bit differently to modern eyes than to Renaissance ones, is Titian's "Venus and Music" (Venere, Amore e Organista). The idea of genius was strong in the Romantic period, and has certainly not gone away since that time!


There are, however, problems with the imitation theory. In either of its two versions, as imitations of the world or imitation of an ideal, the imitation theory has problems. It is at least plausible as a theory about representational painting, drawing and sculpture; and it can be stretched to fit some abstract work, as in the case of Brancusi and Mondrian. But even with such work it leaves a lot out. With an artist like Jackson Pollack it leaves out everything; what do his drip paintings imitate? And how is the theory supposed to work for music? What does music represent? Plato spoke about music representing natural sounds, and emotions, as did Aristotle. but even if one agrees that music imitates emotions, could one build a theory of music out of this fact alone?



Art is powerful, and therefore dangerous

Poetry, drama, music, painting, dance, all stir up our emotions. All of the arts move people powerfully. They can strongly influence our behavior, and even our character. For that reason Plato insisted that music (especially music), along with poetry and drama and the other arts, should be part of the education of young citizens in his ideal republic, but should be strictly censored to present, at first, only the good. (That stories and images can shape character may seem obvious enough; but how does music do this? Plato was much impressed with the theories of Pythagoras, and his number mysticism. Early thinking about geometric ratios was partly inspired by noticing the series of overtones connected with the vibration of a string. A string, when plucked, vibrates along its whole length, but also in halves, giving the octave, and in other divisions which give the fifth, the third, and the rest of the overtone series. These are the bell-like higher tones string players produce when they play "harmonics". Plato thought that the right sort of music would help to set the soul in harmony rather than discord. But that meant excluding certain musical modes from the Republic, and keeping only those that were conducive to a properly ordered soul, i.e., one whose will ruled its passions at the direction of its reason. Only when young people were ready should the strength of their character be tested by exposing them to depictions of evil, and to the more promiscuous modes of music.)


From Plato to New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, influential people through the centuries and across cultures have worried about the power of the arts to influence, and potentially to corrupt. It can be hard for a twenty first century westerner to sympathize with Plato's severe censorship of the arts. Little if anything is more valuable to us than our freedom; we don't take kindly to others telling us what we can watch or listen to or read. We believe in the free exchange of ideas, and let the best idea win. We might even try to justify this idea from Plato's own dialogues. Of course, Plato did not value freedom so highly as do we; he thought that freedom with no limits and no proper training would result in no good. In fact, he thought it would leave the mass of people vulnerable to deception, manipulation, and eventual enslavement by a tyrant. In spite of this, he agreed with modern people about the free exchange of ideas. There was no other way to arrive at truth, in his view. His problem with the arts was that they operated by images rather than by ideas, and thus that they might cloud the truth rather than clarifying it.


Perhaps a bit of "sympathy for the devil" is possible here. The most famous summary of Plato's philosophy is the allegory of the Cave, found in Book VII of his Republic. There Plato asks readers to imagine prisoners chained to a bench, facing the wall of a deep cave. Behind them is a six-foot wall, behind that a fire, and in between the fire and the wall walk actors carrying puppets on sticks. All the prisoners can see are the shadows cast by the puppets. That is their world, and they think it Reality. Imagine that a prisoner is somehow released. At first he or she will stumble in the dark, and be blinded by the fire, but then come to realize that the shadows are copies of the puppets. The liberated prisoner stumbles further up, all the way out the mouth of the cave and into the sunlight. There, when the sunblindness goes away, the prisoner sees the real things of which the puppets themselves are copies. Finally, he or she is able to see the sun, by whose light the real things are visible.


Why would Plato have seen the arts as shadows on the wall of the cave, rather than as shining symbols of the true spiritual world outside? The answer is that he saw both potentials. If he did not see the possibility that art could reveal truth and form character in a good way, he would not have recommended music and stories for the young. But why so much emphasis on the seductive shadow potential of art? Put the Allegory of the Cave into its obvious 21st century version, and one answer begs to be given. The prisoner becomes a couch potato, tied to the television, and taking the images and myths purveyed by the ads and the shows as the way things are. Are those images and myths powerful? Do they shape our picture of ourselves and the world? Do they distract us from knowing who we really are, what is really best for us, who would be a good political leader? The questions answer themselves. (But for a particularly powerful, detailed description of just how they do so, see the works of Stuart Ewen, particularly All Consuming Images and PR!) Plays and public oratory were the media and propaganda of Plato's day, and painting, statuary and music often served similar ends. Think "media", "propaganda", and Entertainment Tonight, rather than "fine art", and it is easier to gain some sympathy for Plato's views. It is surely a chief challenge of our time to enable free, honest, challenging communication while resisting the unreasoned power of advertising imagery and media hype. Whatever one thinks of Plato's solution to this problem, I suggest that this is one of the problems that elicited his proposals for severe censorship of the arts he so obviously loved and had been trained in. The solution may not appeal, but the problem is a real one.


Plato's influence came into the medieval European tradition through the filter of Neoplatonism, a much later modification of Platonic teachings that flourished in the centuries just before and after the time of Jesus. The most famous neo-Platonist was Plotinus. Plotinus and the other neo-Platonists made much of the idea of Beauty, and the soul's quest for it, as described in the Symposium. Through neoplatonism, Plato's second theory (art as imitation of eternal Beauty and eternal Truth) became the channel of his influence on the western middle ages and the renaissance.