Why Plato was wrong about art

“Plato wasn’t a fan of art.”
I looked up from my notes, shocked and astounded by the simple sentence my lecturer in aesthetics, philosophy stood up there. Why wouldn’t Plato be a fan of art? It’s right up his alley. As the lecture went on, I understood that yes, Plato did in fact not like art. And all the reasons made sense. And yet, it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t just let it pass, so in the break, instead of going out of the classroom and talking with my fellow classmates, I got up and walked up to the lecturer, and brought up the disconnect I saw in Plato not liking art. In how, if he would’ve lived today, he’d likely be a strong proponent for it. And I continued to write a paper about that very topic, rewarded with the highest grade.

Why didn’t Plato like art?

Let’s start with the very basics. To discuss why Plato was wrong about not liking art, we must first know why he thought he didn’t like art. And to do that, we pretty much have to understand how he viewed everything. Thankfully, it’s not that hard (obviously, this is going to be simplified beyond comprehension, but yes, let’s go).

Plato talked about something we call his “theory of forms”. In short, we could say that the theory of forms is the idea that everything has an essence. A tree is a tree because of its tree’ness. We can’t find a true, symmetrical triangle in nature. Instead, we have to go to math (a philosophical subject) to imagine, or to rationalize, a true triangle. Yet all triangles share a triangle’ness. In The Republic, he goes through his cave analogy; something that I won’t go through in detail here, but that talks about what we see in the real world is just shadows of the “forms”, and to see the “real world”, the forms, we have to approach life through philosophy (biased much? Anyhow, I’d agree). So, to summarize. His view of everything is that what we call reality are mere shadows, copies, of the reality in his world of forms.

He didn’t like art then, because art is a copy of a copy. It’s the telephone game, but how we perceive actual reality. Instead of looking at a tree, art to Plato is about looking at a copy of a copy of a tree, twice removed from the actual object. The view you get from looking at art, at a painting of something, is a distorted, “wrong” version of reality. And if even reality is a distorted version of what actually matters, then what’s the point of art? It only stands in the way of being able to see reality. Instead of being useful, it’s harmful.

Art in ancient Greece

Art. Plato didn’t like art, because art was a depiction of reality. But what about impressionistic art? Abstract art? It wasn’t really an issue. In ancient Greece, art was about depicting reality. It was only when the camera was invented, and the photo-realistic type of art became obsolete (sort of) that impressionism and abstract art gained its ground. A photograph was better at depicting an accurate image of reality (obviously) and so, art became something else. It became what we know today, as art. But, when Plato lived, art was a bad photograph.

Why Plato was wrong

Finally, why was Plato wrong about not liking art? The reasons made sense. In the art that was around in his days, of course he wouldn’t like art. A copy of a copy isn’t worth much (imagine if someone would copy Mona Lisa, and then someone else would copy that. And try to sell that for a lot of money?). Now, if Plato would’ve seen the art we have today. I think a reasonable argument could be made that art could be a pathway for philosophers (again, he’s biased, so let’s run with it) to better understand and express the world of forms and ideas, in a different and possibly even better way than reality. To express things we don’t perceive in a concrete, observational manner, but that we reach through contemplation. Through philosophy.

I’ve written about this before, on my email list. Do you want more takes like this, along with an ongoing discussion around archetypes? Sign up for my email list.

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