Defending Plato's Renunciation of Art
This is in reference to a 2011 lecture entitled “Plato’s Philosophy of Art”, given by Dr. James Grant of the University of London, Birkbeck. An audio recording of the lecture can be found at the bottom.
Today, Plato is probably known best for his work Republic, an outline of a highly idealistic and just city-state. Many remember bits and pieces from their Intro to Philosophy classes, but a criticism that is generally brushed over in discussion of the Republic is Plato’s flat-out renunciation of art. A prerequisite in understanding Plato’s position is realizing the role that art, and specifically poetry, played in Greek culture.
Poetry in the time of Plato played a similar role to the Bible in early American culture. Sections were recited at schools, in homes, and children were expected to memorize various passages for later recitation. Much like the Bible, these poems formed early moral backbones in young Greeks and were very much responsible for the development of certain cultural norms. It wasn’t so much a problem for Plato that art had such a grip on the cultural norms and moral fibers of a society, but rather that the artists themselves had no understanding of what they were representing, and thus inspired corrupt and destructive morals. In the eyes of Plato, the artist or poet was typically not the ideal moral character in any society, and thus should not have been in charge of dictating moral grounds or developing cultural norms. A second complaint Plato had about the role of the artist was that even if they were generally a moral and civilized human being, they were falsely representing reality through their art, something which Plato very much opposed to and which undermined a central theory in Platonism.
A mainstay in Platonic thought is the idea of ideal forms. The Theory of Forms posits that beyond the world we see, touch and hear, there is a world of fundamental reality, of pure truth and form. In this school of thought, the form of a bed, for example, is not its color, material, unmade sheets or mattress, but the essence of “bed” itself. Plato claims that the problem herein is that artists know nothing of form, especially painters. He claims that the painter only knows visual cues and expresses his ideas only through visual representation. Plato says that painters use tricks to inspire error in their weak viewers, making them think that there is a real world inside of the canvas, when there really is not. Dr. Grant elaborates with an example about a painter of a flute versus a flutist. He says that in the eyes of Plato, the flutist has a much deeper understanding of the form of a flute than the artist who represents a flute in a painting. It was this discrepancy in sincerity and honesty of knowledge that disturbed Plato most.
A modern approach in defending Plato’s dislike of art has to do with cognitive biases and more specifically with what we call the Availability Heuristic. The Availability Heuristic is the tendency of people to overestimate the likelihood of an event happening if an example of that event easily comes to mind. Illustrations of this bias include general over-estimations of dying in a plane crash following the attacks on September 11th, an increased worry about shark attacks after the release of the movie Jaws in 1975 and the general assumption that all celebrities must regularly use cocaine because we see a few cases of celebrity drug binges on television. Similarly, art can affect our perception or reality in a similar way. Dr. Grant claims that perhaps the standardization of “story arcs” in movies and books have given the public an altered and idealized version of how reality works. When life does not, and Dr. Grant notes that it rarely does, follow the standard structure of a Western novel or the story arc of a modern romance film, the cognitive dissonance that arises many times leads to disappointment and sadness.
Another example pertaining to art’s stranglehold on modern cultural norms is the accusation that excessive tobacco use in popular films is what led to the wide use of tobacco in everyday life. Still today, public health experts are advocating for the reduction of cigarette use in movies, though efforts have continually come up short due to large bribes from the very informed and aware tobacco companies. This horrible truth highlights why now, more than ever, we may indeed want to question who is doing the teaching in modern culture.
Whether or not Plato was right about art’s destructiveness to the moral fabric of society, the fact is that it does have a large impact. We should then begin to ask, what is the role of art in society? And if that role is very important, who can we trust as an artist? And is art a valuable source of knowledge? For now, these questions will be left out in the open for contemplation and analysis at a later point.
Plato’s Philosophy of Art – James Grant Ph.D