Plato's Ideas about Art

What is the place of art in Plato's ideal state? In both the Republic and the Laws Plato maintains that art is subordinated to the good of the State. As such, if art needs to be censured for the betterment of the State, it will be.

Plato defended art that imitated Ideal realities, not the photographic imitation of that which can be sensed and individual experiences. He wrote in the Symposium that all beautiful things participate in the Idea of beauty.

Attack on Art

Plato's attack on art is that it often presents images that stimulate illusory ideas in the viewer. If people know only these images, they will have a distorted view of the way things really are. The watercolor image of the Empire State Building, the movie that only gives a rough approximation of its bio subject — these fail as works of art because they are so far from the reality they seek to depict.

The Republic also introduces Plato's notorious critique of the visual and imitative arts. These arts trade in appearances merely, not realities. Words are even more serious sources of illusion, especially in speechmaking and in rhetoric in general, whether written or spoken. Someone gifted in word usage could certainly deceive one's listeners and pull him away from the truth.

In Book X of the Republic Plato spells out what he thinks is wrong with painting and poetry. Both kinds of artists are ignorant of the true nature of their subjects. Defenders of art respond that one can be ignorant and still be a splendid poet. But Plato says ignorance of medicine is inconsistent with being regarded as an expert doctor, but Homer's ignorance shows that one can be a poet without being knowledgeable.

In the earlier dialogues, Socrates contends that the poets lack wisdom, but he also grants that they “say many fine things.” But by the time of the Republic, it seems there is little that is fine in poetry or any of the other fine arts. Most of poetry and other fine arts will be censored out of existence in Plato's “ideal state,” the republic. Another reason Plato opposed the arts is that they arouse excessive and unnatural emotions and appetites.

Why is Plato so opposed to works of art, especially poetry? Since poetic imitation can be accomplished without appeal to the facts, it cannot be an imitation of a thing's true nature.

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