Collectively Written Essay.

Fine Art Theories and Practices


Descriptive and Critical Assessment of Plato’s Theory of Art

The Republic presents Plato's vision of the ideal state, covering a wide range of topics: social, educational, psychological, moral, and philosophical. It also includes some of Plato's most important writing on the nature of reality and the theory of the "forms."

In The Republic, Plato offers his conception of the ideal state, which achieves harmony when in accord with the individual and with the same process. The central issue in devising an ideal state is justice, and in examining this conception and the general structure and operation of the ideal state, Plato makes a direct comparison and connection between the individual state and the individual citizen. Both have a soul, and these souls are composed of three parts in each case. The sort of class structure Plato envisions also has a three-part structure, with the rulers at the top, followed by a class of soldiers and then the mass of citizens.

Plato uses the allegory of the cave to show that most people live in a world of opinion or shadows, prohibiting their participation in the state. Only when they come out of the cave (i.e. leave the shadows) to participate in knowledge and ideas can individuals come to know the truth and the good Glaucon's speech seduces Socrates for it is in itself contradictory.

Glaucon has forcibly argued for the superiority of the unjust life, something truly unjust men would never do in public. Socrates says that there is no better topic to debate. In response to the two views of injustice and justice presented by Glaucon and Adeimantus, he claims incompetence, but feels it would be impious to leave justice in such doubt. The Republic sets out to define justice.

Plato’s critic of art falls into three principle areas, those of “mimesis”, moral corruption and political threat. However there are several key problems with this theory.

It is difficult to apply criticisms of imitation to purely abstracted arts which are deliberately none representational both in musical and visual art forms. This is equally true when addressing “Readymade” art forms such as Duchamp’s Fountain or “Found Objects”, in which the craftsman’s work is utilised without any physical alterations by the artist. In fact what would Plato’s response be to works such as James Turrell’s “Deer Shelter” which frames they sky itself?

Moral corruption is almost always the root justification for repression, art is no stranger to this and perhaps it is in part Plato’s continuing influence, that artists continue to associate with the cultural imagery of deviance.

Plato equates art with seduction and depravity, equally fearing both mental and physical pleasures, yet he seeks the ‘truth’. Where as Nietzshe argues the passage to this ‘truth’ can only be found and achieved through the embracement of Plato’s greatest fears, through “intoxication”, “a complete forgetting of the self” and “joyful penetrating of the whole of nature.”

Any form of growth, artistic, moral or other, is dependent on the question of how mankind is to better itself if it does not build on what has gone before? Plato could not counter these arguments even to his contemporaries in light of Aristotle’s evidence of “Catharsis”.

Art is political and is continually linked with political movements. However Plato fails to appreciate that it is through censorship and state totalitarianism that art has historically achieved most political power. Plato viewed art as a political danger because it threatened his hierarchical division of labour.

It is challenging to support Platonian notions, when we value constitutional freedoms as paramount, however it is easy to forget that Plato’s society was one which was constructed on slavery and indentured service.





“The Republic” Plato. Penguin Classics

Some Notes on Plato and Aristotle and Mimetic Theory of Art

Aesthetics - Plato's Aesthetics

“Sigmund Fraud, A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”
The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud

“The Brith of Tragedy” Friedrich Nietzsche
Penguin Classics

“Aristotle (384-322 BCE): Overview”

Aristotle and Catharsis


2008, Philosophy of Art