Estheta

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  • -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. It’s 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 acheive 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.
  • 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.
  • Of course there is a lot more to Plato’s philosophy than this; but this is enough background to begin explaining his views about the arts.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
  • The study of Plato's account of beauty must begin with one pronounced warning about terminology. The Greek adjective kalon only approximates to the English “beautiful,” so that not everything Plato says about a kalon thing will belong in a summary of his aesthetic theories.Readers can take this distinction between the Greek and English terms too far. It is more tempting to argue against equating words from different languages than to insist on treating them interchangeably. And the discussion bears more on assessments of Platonic ethical theory, which draws on what may appear to be aesthetic approbation more than modern ethics does, than on whatever subject may fairly be called Plato's aesthetics.But even given these qualifications the reader should know how to tell what is beautiful from what is kalon. To begin with the two terms are commonly applied to different items. They have overlapping but distinct ranges of application. A passage in Plato may speak of a face or body that someone finds kalon, or for that matter a statue, a spoon, a tree, or a grassy place to rest (Phaedrus 230b). Then “beautiful” makes a natural equivalent to the Greek adjective, certainly sounding less stilted than the alternatives. Even here, however, it is telling that Plato far more often uses kalon for a face or body than for works of art and natural scenery. As far as unambiguous beauties are concerned, he has a smaller set in mind than we do (Kostman 2010).More typically kalon appears in contexts to which “beautiful” would fit awkwardly or not at all. For both Plato and Aristotle—and in many respects for Greek popular morality—kalonhas a particular role to play as ethical approbation, not by meaning the same thing that agathon “good” means, but as a special complement to goodness. At times kalon narrowly means “noble,” often and more loosely “admirable.” The compound kalosk'agathos,the aristocratic ideal, is all-round praise, not “beautiful and good” as its compounds would translate separately but closer to “splendid and upright.” Here kalon is entirely an ethical term. Calling virtue beautiful feels misplaced in modern terms, or even perverse; calling wisdom beautiful, as the Symposium does (204b), will sound like an outright mistake (Kosman 2010, 348–350).Because kalon does not always apply when “beautiful” does, and conversely much can be kalon that no one calls beautiful, translators may use other words. One rightly popular choice is “fine,” which applies to most things labeled kalon and also appropriate to ethical and aesthetic contexts (so Woodruff 1983). There are fine suits and string quartets but also fine displays of courage. Of course we have fine sunsets and fine dining as well, this word being even broader than kalon; that is not to mention fine points or fine print. And whereas people ordinarily ask what beauty really consist in, so that a conversation on the topic might actually have taken place, it is hard to imagine worrying over “what the fine is” or “what is really fine.”The telling criterion will be not philological but philosophical. Studying the Hippias Major each reader should ask whether Plato's treatment of to kalon sounds relevant to questions one asks about beauty today.1.1 Hippias Major
  • For a long time scholars treated the Hippias Major as a spurious dialogue. Today most agree that Plato wrote it. This dialogue follows Socrates and the Sophist Hippias through a sequence of attempts to define to kalon. Socrates badgers Hippias, in classic Socratic ways, to identify beauty's general nature; Hippias offers three definitions. Quite preposterously for instance “a beautiful young woman is beautiful”
  • Hippias had a reputation for the breadth of his factual knowledge. He compiled the first list of Olylmpic victors, for instance. But his attention to specifics and facts renders him incapable of generalizing to a philosophical definition.
  • First definition: beauty is a pretty girlHippias first response is"For be assured, Socrates, if I must speak the truth, a beautiful maiden is beautiful ".[2] Socrates estimates this to be, with his usual irony, a brilliant answer. But cannot they say that a lyre, a horse or even a pot is beautiful? The most beautiful of pots of course would not stand up to comparison with a beautiful girl, but then in turn what is the beauty of a girl in comparison to that of a goddess? In short, there is an infinite number of beautiful things besides beautiful girls. In any case, this is not really the question; it is not a question of knowing what is beautiful and what isn't, but rather to define beauty and to say what makes beautiful things "beautiful".[edit]Second definition: beauty is goldThe second response offered by Hippias is: "This that you ask about, the beautiful, is nothing else but gold... For we all know, I fancy, that wherever this is added, even what before appears ugly will appear beautiful when adorned with gold."[2]No doubt, replies Socrates, but what to make then of the great statue of Athena at the Parthenon? This masterpiece of Phidias is mostly made of ivory and precious stones, and not of gold. Yet the statue is magnificent. Besides, gold or any other precious metal only gives rise to beauty if it is properly used. In the case of the pot, for instance, who is to say whether a wooden spoon or a golden spoon would be better to stir with, or which would be more beautiful?[edit]Third definition: beauty is to be rich and respectedThis time Hippias thinks that he understands: Socrates wants to know what no man will ever find ugly: "I say, then, that for every man and everywhere it is most beautiful to be rich and healthy, and honoured by the Greeks, to reach old age, and, after providing a beautiful funeral for his deceased parents, to be beautifully and splendidly buried by his own offspring." [2] A scene follows, where Socrates shows his fear of the beating with a stick he would receive from his harasser if he had given that answer. What then of Achilles or Heracles? Was it beautiful for these two heroes, sons of the immortals, to be buried before their parents, before the gods? Was there no beauty in their lives because they were not buried by their offspring? Beauty in this sense then applies to ordinary men, but it would be ugliness for heroes. The definition is thus incorrect.
  • First definition: beauty is that which is appropriateTiring of the errors of Hippias, Socrates offers a definition in his turn, which he holds came from his famous harasser: the beautiful is simply that which is appropriate. This response pleases Hippias. But further examination is needed: first of all, is it the appropriateness which makes things beautiful, or does it simply make them appear to be beautiful? The second hypothesis is tempting: even a ridiculous man, dressed in nice clothing, will appear more beautiful. But inside he would still be ridiculous; thus appropriate and beautiful are not the same.Hippias suggests that appropriateness provides at the same time the reality and the appearance of beauty. But then, nothing could be less sure; if everything was that simple, citizens and politicians would no longer have to quarrel to decide which action was the nicer.[2][edit]Second definition: beauty is that which is usefulSocrates proposes a second solution: if it is beautiful, is it useful? But here again problems surface: it is through power that men make things useful. Nevertheless, as is well known, power can as much serve evil as it serves good. And there is difficulty in qualifying actions as bad or good. Which in turn requires that the definition be refocused; beauty is only usefulness applied to good ends, or those that are "favourable".[2][edit]Third definition: beauty is that which is favourableIdentifying the beautiful and the favourable leads to a paradox: the favourable procreates the beautiful, as a father procreates a son. Since the favourable and the beautiful are thus considered to be one and the same, they arrive at the finding that beauty is the reason of goodness. In logic, a cause and an effect are two different things, as a father is different from the son. And thus they must conclude that Beauty is not good, and good is not beauty; an assertion which pleases neither Socrates nor Hippias.[2][edit]Fourth definition: beauty is the pleasure that comes from seeing and hearingTo conclude, Socrates brings out a final definition; at first glance quite amazing: "[what] if we were to say that that is beautiful which makes us feel joy ; I do not mean all pleasures, but that which makes us feel joy through hearing and sight?" This hypothesis, while appealing, contains according to Socrates himself a fundamental flaw; that it ignores the beauty of the more noble pleasures, drawn from the studious occupations or the study of laws.On the other hand, it seems striking that only the senses of sight and hearing are taken into account. Is this a way to submit to common opinion, which is that touch, taste and smell are somehow more shameful and base than the other senses? Finally, it is not simply because pleasure comes from seeing or hearing that it is beautiful. Socrates throws himself into a series of considerations: taking into account pairs of objects, in the Majority of cases the term which they apply to both objects (A and B are beautiful, A and B are just) can apply also to an object taken separately (A is beautiful and B is beautiful). But in some rare cases it can happen that it this is not the case, notably when the sum of A and B forms an even number and A and B, taken in isolation, are two odd numbers.In the case of beauty, it is the first category that is appropriate, because if a pair of two objects is beautiful, it stands to reason that each of them is. But a new paradox appears, since the beautiful, in discreet definition, must belong to both pleasures of sight and hearing, taken jointly, and cannot belong to only one of them. The definition as a result proves to be flawed. Exhausted by the many questions they have considered, Hippias berates Socrates and urges him instead of "with mere talk and nonsense" to seek beauty in "the ability to produce a discourse well and beautifully in a court of law or a council-house or before any other public body before which the discourse may be delivered."[2] Socrates, taking his leave, pretends to feel bad about the situation, cornered between the attacks of Hippias and those of his mysterious opponent. His only certainty, he concludes with a sense of humour, is that from now on he better understands the Greekproverb "beautiful things are difficult"
  • The Symposium contains Plato's other major analysis of beauty. The three features of beauty in the Hippias Major apply here as well. In the Symposium Socrates claims to be quoting his teacher Diotima on the subject of love, and in the lesson attributed to her she calls beauty the object of every love's yearning. She spells out the soul's progress toward ever-purer beauty, from one body to all, then through all beautiful souls, laws, and kinds of knowledge, to arrive at beauty itself (210a–211d).Two remarks suggest that works of art count as beautiful things. Diotima describes the poet's task as the begetting of wisdom and other virtues (209a). Ultimately moved by desire for what is beautiful the poet produces works of verse; and who would not envy Homer or Hesiod (209d)? But otherwise the Symposium seems prepared to treat anything but a poem as an exemplar of beauty. In a similar spirit the Philebus's examples of pure sensory beauty exclude pictures (51b–d).The Republic contains several tokens of Plato's reluctance to associate poetry with beauty. The dialogue's first discussion of poetry, whose context is education, censors poems that corrupt the young (377b–398b). Then almost immediately Socrates is speaking of cultivating a fondness for beauty among the young guardians. Their taste for beauty will help them prefer noble deeds over ugly vulgar ones (401b–d, 403c). How can Plato have seen the value of beauty to education and not mentioned the subject in his earlier criticisms? Why couldn't this part of the Republic concede that false and pernicious poems affect the young through their beauty?To be sure, the dialogue finds beauty in vase paintings and music; but it takes pains to prevent beauty from appearing in poetry. Republic 10 calls the beauty of poetic lines a deceptive attractiveness. Take away the decorative language that makes a poetic sentiment sound so right and put it into ordinary words, and it becomes unremarkable, much as young people's faces beautified by youth later show themselves as the plain looks they are (601b).
  • Beauty is Plato's example of a Form so frequently because it bears every mark of the Forms. It is an evaluative concept as much as justice and courage are, and it suffers from disputes over its meaning as much as they do. The Theory of Forms mainly exists in order to guarantee stable referents for disputed evaluative terms; so if anything needs a Form, beauty does, and it will have a Form if any property does.In general, a Platonic Form F differs from an individual F thing in that F may be predicated univocally of the Form: The Form F is F. An individual F thing by comparison both is and is not F; in this sense the same property F can only be predicated equivocally of the individual (e.g. Republic 479a–c). Plato's analysis of equivocally F individuals (Cratylus 439d–e,Symposium 211a) recalls observations that everyone makes about beautiful objects. They fade with time; require an offsetting ugly detail; elicit disagreements among observers; lose their beauty outside their context (adult shoes on children's feet). Odd numbers may fail to be odd in some hard-to-explain way, but the ways in which beautiful things fall short of their perfection are obvious to unphilosophical admirers.Furthermore, physical beauty makes the process known in Plato's dialogues as anamnêsis or recollection more plausible than it is for most other properties. The philosophical merit of things that are equivocally F is that they come bearing signs of their incompleteness, so that the inquisitive mind wants to know more (Republic 523c–524d). But whereas soft or large items inspire questions in minds of an abstract bent, and the perception of examples of justice or self-control presupposes moral development, beautiful things strike everyone. Therefore, beauty promises more effective reflection than any other property of things. Beauty alone is both a Form and a sensory experience (Phaedrus 250d).This is why the Phaedrus (250d–256b) and Symposium ignore people's experiences of other properties when they describe the first movement into philosophizing. Beautiful things remind souls of their mystery as no other visible objects do, and in his optimistic moments Plato welcomes people's attention to them.Beauty's distinctive pedagogical effects show why Plato talks about its goodness and good consequences, sometimes even its identity with “the good” (Laws 841c; Philebus 66a–b;Republic 401c; Symposium 201c, 205e; but the relationship between beautiful and good, especially in Symposium, is controversial: White 1989); also why Plato speaks so reluctantly of the beauty that might inhere in art and poetry. For him the question is not whether poems are beautiful (even perceived as beautiful), and subsequently whether or not they belong in a theory of that prized aesthetic property. Another question matters more to him than either poetry or beauty does: What leads a mind toward knowledge and the Forms? Things of beauty do so excellently well. Poems typically cannot. When poems (or paintings) set the mind running along unphilosophical tracks away from what is abstract and intelligible, the attractions they possess will be seen as meretricious. The corrupting cognitive effect exercised by poems demonstrates their inability to function as Plato knows the beautiful object to function.The corrupting effect needs to be spelled out further. What prevents poems from behaving as beautiful objects do? The answer will have to address the orienting question in Plato's aesthetics, namely: What fosters philosophical enlightenment, and what obstructs it?
  • The study of Plato's account of beauty must begin with one pronounced warning about terminology. The Greek adjective kalon only approximates to the English “beautiful,” so that not everything Plato says about a kalon thing will belong in a summary of his aesthetic theories.Readers can take this distinction between the Greek and English terms too far. It is more tempting to argue against equating words from different languages than to insist on treating them interchangeably. And the discussion bears more on assessments of Platonic ethical theory, which draws on what may appear to be aesthetic approbation more than modern ethics does, than on whatever subject may fairly be called Plato's aesthetics.But even given these qualifications the reader should know how to tell what is beautiful from what is kalon. To begin with the two terms are commonly applied to different items. They have overlapping but distinct ranges of application. A passage in Plato may speak of a face or body that someone finds kalon, or for that matter a statue, a spoon, a tree, or a grassy place to rest (Phaedrus 230b). Then “beautiful” makes a natural equivalent to the Greek adjective, certainly sounding less stilted than the alternatives. Even here, however, it is telling that Plato far more often uses kalon for a face or body than for works of art and natural scenery. As far as unambiguous beauties are concerned, he has a smaller set in mind than we do (Kostman 2010).More typically kalon appears in contexts to which “beautiful” would fit awkwardly or not at all. For both Plato and Aristotle—and in many respects for Greek popular morality—kalonhas a particular role to play as ethical approbation, not by meaning the same thing that agathon “good” means, but as a special complement to goodness. At times kalon narrowly means “noble,” often and more loosely “admirable.” The compound kalosk'agathos,the aristocratic ideal, is all-round praise, not “beautiful and good” as its compounds would translate separately but closer to “splendid and upright.” Here kalon is entirely an ethical term. Calling virtue beautiful feels misplaced in modern terms, or even perverse; calling wisdom beautiful, as the Symposium does (204b), will sound like an outright mistake (Kosman 2010, 348–350).Because kalon does not always apply when “beautiful” does, and conversely much can be kalon that no one calls beautiful, translators may use other words. One rightly popular choice is “fine,” which applies to most things labeled kalon and also appropriate to ethical and aesthetic contexts (so Woodruff 1983). There are fine suits and string quartets but also fine displays of courage. Of course we have fine sunsets and fine dining as well, this word being even broader than kalon; that is not to mention fine points or fine print. And whereas people ordinarily ask what beauty really consist in, so that a conversation on the topic might actually have taken place, it is hard to imagine worrying over “what the fine is” or “what is really fine.”The telling criterion will be not philological but philosophical. Studying the Hippias Major each reader should ask whether Plato's treatment of to kalon sounds relevant to questions one asks about beauty today.1.1 Hippias Major
  • Art as an 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 ofVasily Kandinsky and the Blue Rider (derBlaue 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!
  • 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.
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    1. 1. Plato (427- 347 BC) Eventually, he returned toAthens and established his ownschool of philosophy at theAcademy. For students enrolledthere, Platotried both to pass on theheritage of a Socratic style ofthinking and to guide theirprogress through mathematicallearning to the achievement ofabstract philosophical truth,the written dialogues, on which
    2. 2. Plato (427- 347 BC) Plato believes that theworld that appears toour senses is in some waydefective and filled witherror, and that there is amore andrealm that is populatedby entities that areeternal.
    3. 3. Plato (427- 347 BC) One of the most important of these abstract objects are goodness,equality, and . The mostfundamental distinction in Plato’sphilosophy is between observableobjectsthat appear and the oneobject that is what really is,from which those many beautiful thingsreceive their names and theircorresponding characteristics.Nearly every work of Plato is devoted
    4. 4. • Plato had a love- hate relationship with the arts. • He found the arts threatening. • He thought the arts are powerfulshapers of character.
    5. 5. • Plato saw the changingphysical world as a poor, decaying copy of a perfect, rational, eternal, and changeless original.
    6. 6. • Beauty, Justice, and The Circle are all examples of what Plato called Forms or Ideas. • For Plato, these Forms are perfect Ideals, but they are
    7. 7. They can strongly influence ourbehaviour, and even ourcharacter.For that reason Plato insistedthatmusic, along with poetry anddramaand the other arts, should be
    8. 8. • For a long time scholarstreated the Hippias Major as a spurious dialogue. Today most agree that Plato wrote it. This dialogue follows Socrates and the Sophist Hippias through a sequence of attempts to define to kalon. Socrates badgers Hippias, in classic
    9. 9. • Hippias had a reputation for hisfactual knowledge,but his attention to specifics and facts renders him incapable of generalizing to a
    10. 10. 1. "For be assured, Socrates, if I must speak the truth, a beautiful maiden is beautiful “ 2. "This that you ask about, the beautiful, is nothing else but gold... For we all know, I fancy, that wherever this is added, even what before appears ugly will appear beautiful when adorned with gold."[3. "I say, then, that for every man and everywhere it is most beautiful to be rich and healthy, and honoured
    11. 11. 1. Beauty that is appropriate 2.Beauty that is useful 3.Beauty that is favourable4.Beauty that comes
    12. 12. • The dialogue finds beauty in vase paintings and music; but it takes pains to prevent beauty from appearing in poetry. Republic calls the beauty of poetic lines a deceptive attractiveness. Take away the decorative language that makes a poetic sentiment sound so right and put it into ordinary words, and it
    13. 13. Plato sees noopposition between the pleasures that beautybrings and the goals of philosophy.Philosophers meet thisbeauty in an experience in which they
    14. 14. • Plato says that artimitates 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
    15. 15. or even possessed, has also persisted to the present day. Some ofour most common art vocabulary derives
    16. 16. • It is at least plausible as a theory about representational painting, drawing and sculpture; and it can be stretched to fit someabstract work, as in the case of Brancusi andMondrian., but even with

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