Philosophy: Plato and Art
In Plato's Republic, the philosopher has a great deal to say about art, poetry and how these activities are connected. Plato's perspective on art and poetry is actually somewhat negative; he believes that an overemphasis on artistic expression can be bad for politics and society. According to Plato, the theory of Forms has a profound effect on how man interacts with the world around him. This manifests itself in graining true knowledge through Forms to understand the nature of being, as well as possessing strong ethics, which leads to living together gracefully through politics. This unique through-line of knowledge forms the basis for Plato’s philosophy of life and society. According to Plato, Forms are necessary due to their ability to define reality through abstract ideas, and their ability to distinguish between objects in thought. A Form and a thought are different things; the idea of a horse is not the same as the Form of a specific horse. Objects can be separated into sensible and intelligible realms, both existing at once within each other. With a Form, there is a set of universal properties that are consistent throughout each object, and make it what it is. Plato believes that this brings order to objects and beings, and therefore makes them more real and beautiful.
Plato's idea of the poet relates closely to imitation, as he believes poets steer us away from our search to find the real truth in things (the Forms): "The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he do[s, and judge only by colors and figures" (Republic, Book X). The poet that Plato rails against "is the craftsman who is able to make not only furniture of every kind, but all that grows out of the earth, and all living creatures, himself included" (Book X). Plato also warns against those who are too quick to advance their causes (in this case, art and peotry) at the expense of what is right: " what will anyone be profited if under the influence of honor or money or power, aye, or under the excitement of poetry, he neglect justice and virtue?" (Book X). Plato sees expressions of art and creativity as something that is irrational, and which has no place in the perfect state of man.
Plato's views, while sensible, perhaps ascribe far too much danger to the purpose of art and creativity. By stating that these things are inherently dangerous, Plato assumes that everything we do must forward our thinking and understanding of the universe (and assumes that art does not do that). However, art, in its exploration of the human condition, and its ability to allow us to create imitations of the real world, allow us to further our understanding of it. This plays along with Aristotle's ideas that art is actually the realization of a real idea into external form; the creation of something that imitates it does not make the real thing less real, but instead illustrates our view of it. Art allows us to process and idealize people and objects, showing them not as they truly are, but how we consider them to be (p. 39). Therefore, Aristotle's perspective on Art creates an interesting juxtaposition from Plato's criticism of art as distracting from the search for Forms.