Thursday, July 5, 2007

My Problem with Plato

I have about 100 dishes to wash sitting in the sink from last nights dinner of fettuccini and meatballs. However, I'd rather try to get to work and solve this problem that has been bothering me for a couple of days. Let me explain.


I have been aware of Plato's theory of ideal forms for many years now. Back in high school we read the allegory of the cave, and as an undergrad I read Plato's Republic for a class on the philosophy of ethics. Throughout my development as a visual studies scholar I have been exposed to the concept of Plato's aesthetics and how the artist relates to these ideal forms. The problem I am now facing is that this exposure to Plato's aesthetics has always been through secondary sources. In fact, I have never actually read any Plato with the question of the artist in mind.

As I begin to layout an argument about the image of the solitary artist in Western aesthetics I though that Plato would be the perfect place to start. However, through my own reading of these primary texts, I have come to realize that Plato's perspective on the artist is not very clear at all. In the Republic he clearly criticizes and demotes the artist as solely an "imitator" of reality. So harsh is this critique that he concludes that the artist is a danger to the public and should be banned from his ideal city. In this text (Book X) the artist is believed to be three times removed from the ideal form of things. In order to know the truth about things one must have both knowledge and an opinion of how they work. This would put the craftsman at a closer position to knowing the truth about objects than the painter.

Ok, so all of this is really important only because Plato argues that the artist does not stimulate the rational side of the brain and therefore since all things good are determined by practiced rationality the artist is inherently bad. Now if you dont' see how this is already a problem with my argument - I will explain. But first, to complicate things more, one must now move to the dialogue of the Symposium here Plato tells a story of a dinner party that Socrates attended where each attendee gives a speech on the topic of love. When it is Socrates' turn he relates love to a desire toward good and beauty. And in the topic of beauty he briefly mentions the artist and the poet. Here the artist is admired for his ability to bring one closer to good and beauty - and these qualities are regarded as being closer to knowledge and truth - the ultimate goal.

So here we have it would seem a slight contradiction of the role of the aritst. More specifically it seems, the role of the emotions and their capability to bring one toward knowledge and truth. This is how I am thinking of reconciling this dilemma. I will argue that despite the contradiction of Plato's position on the role of the artist. One thing is clear that in his metaphysics the realm of ideal forms is accessible to few (mainly the philosopher-kings). However the goal is to find pathways to reach this realm of truth and knowledge. The artist may not be heightened to the role of the artist-genius in Plato, but Plato's metaphysics lays the foundation for how future philosophers will envision the artist. In Plato's world few are able to achieve the place of the philosopher-king, but by the time we get to Kant the artist is beginning to be recognized as a genius who has some connection with ideal forms.

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