Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

Plato and the Idea of Art

Plato was an ultra-realist that stressed, to an extreme degree, objective reality, to the point of believing that concepts were individual entities with their own independent reality, i.e., the world of the “Forms.” The soul actually existed in this intelligible world prior to existing in the body, and will go back to it once the body decomposes and the soul can escape the prison of the body.

For Plato, true knowledge is obtained by pure reason and understanding; our mind obtains concepts based on the immaterial Forms in a sort of infused way, not through the senses. Empirical perception cannot give us true knowledge, only “belief” can, since the object of the empirical are mere “copies” (bad copies) of the all perfect intelligible Forms, and copies, namely, particular objects, are constantly in flux, while the Forms never change.

Those who dedicate their lives to the Forms are the philosophers, and should be the rulers of an ideal society, according to Plato’s Republic, living according to the virtue of wisdom. The lower ranking members, the workers, dedicate themselves to the copies, concrete tangible things, while living the lower virtue of moderation. Hence, objective reality, though in a radical way in Plato, has primacy and must dominate mans’ lives.

Plato believed that this utopian city should exclude artists for a fourfold reason: metaphysical, because the art is a copy of the copy, an image of the image, a base thing in itself; epistemological, because art doesn’t convey any true knowledge, nor does the artist know anything, since particular objects are only “believed”; aesthetic, due to the expression of sensual things, distracting man from the Form of Beauty, the purely intellectual reality; moral, since art appeals to the lower parts of the soul, namely the appetitive side of the soul.

The Greek philosopher believed art to be an incitement to anarchy. Even Homer must be censored, since he is guilty of artist “crimes.” Philosophy must take over art, reason supplanting passion.

This is an extreme view no doubt. Yet today we have gone to the opposite extreme, radically emphasizing subjectivity, marginalizing objectivity or just outright denying it. In contemporary mainstream culture, contrary to Plato’s ideas, art takes over philosophy, passion trumps reason, the senses replace the intellect. This is patent in conceptual or subjective art of our era, whose motto is anything and everything is art, making art in reality nothing at all. It doesn’t have to be anything in re, as long as it is meaningful for the subject.

Plato would definitely “flip out” on modern day conceptual art because it would lead to anarchy more so than past objective art. These conceptual “artists” criticize traditional art; they believe it to be “confined” by certain immutable substantial elements, what every student used to learn in Art theory or Art 101. These rigid principles are thought to be obsolete, and they exclude other notions of art; we can’t have that in our all-inclusive environment. Objectivity is seen as enslaving in the end.

I remember walking into a contemporary art exposition and seeing a “work of art” which consisted of four or five colored buckets, each filled with water at different levels. I noticed, along with others, that this wasn’t really art, at least in the typical objective way of thinking. The “work” was worthless in itself. But once I read the author’s interpretation of the buckets filled with water, located on a plaque nearby, I perceived immediately that the “art” was simply in the maker’s mind. In fact, without the artist’s explanation of their artwork, one couldn’t even tell if the work was art or not.

Art is probably the best interpreter of culture. If you want to understand history profoundly, studying art is crucial, for it reveals aspects of a people that other historical elements cannot unveil. Today, we have lost the notion of real art because we have lost the notion of reality.

The existence of conceptual art points to a more underlying problem today: the denial of all objective reality, not just the unchanging principles of art.

I personally had a conversion to the Catholic faith reading Plato, believe it or not. After much studying I was hit with a profound yet simple insight: objective reality exists, I must know it and conform myself to it, which was, at the same time, a grandiose and scary revelation. We need Platonism to save our culture, steeped in subjectivity and relativism. We simply cannot arrive to the sublimity of the Catholic Faith, contemplating its Divine mysteries, when fundamentals are denied, namely, objectivity.

Only the recuperation of real art, art in se, can save us from the subjective anarchical view of the same. We can even say that Plato was right in a sense. The Forms do have independent existence, being entities separated from the material world. According to the Church’s adapting of Platonism, the Forms exist as exemplars in the mind of God, who knew all things before they were concretely placed in existence as particular things. All things exist in Christ from all eternity and was created by Him and for Him. This is the foundational metaphysics of Saint Bonaventure, who used Plato to explain deeply the mysteries of our Faith.

Photo by Eddy Klaus on Unsplash.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...