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Plato on poetry and art


To: Andrew W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato on poetry and art
Date: 7 January 2005 13:40

Dear Andrew,

Thank you for your email of 23 December, with your essay towards the Associate Award in response to the question, 'This whole genre of poetry deforms its audience’s minds, unless they have the antidote, which is recognition of what this kind of poetry is actually like’ (598b). Assess Plato’s reasons for severely limiting the practice of the fine arts in his idealised republic. What is, in your opinion, the nature of the relationship between art and morality?'

I had the impression that I was reading two essays, not one, which you have attempted - not altogether successfully - to weld together in your final paragraphs. Having said that, this is still a scholarly and well argued piece of work which comfortably meets the criteria for the Associate.

What follows should not be read as criticism, but rather my attempt to grapple with the very difficult issues that you have highlighted.

Suppose we start with the distinction, which I find initially quite convincing, between art which copies phenomenal reality - a portrait or figure painting, for example - and art which like Pollock or Mondrian directs the mind beyond the phenomenal world to something universal.

That is initially plausible, until one considers what kind of artwork would satisfy the description of a *mere* 'copy of phenomenal reality'. Two examples come to mind: the police artist's impression of a suspect released to the press, and an item of pornography. The work by the police artist is of not intended to be 'art'. That is the point. It is merely a tool which is used to help apprehend the individual depicted in the picture. The item of pornography is a tool designed to elicit certain emotional and physical reactions.

In response to these examples, one wants to say that what makes something art is precisely that it is not (or, not just) a 'tool for a purpose'. Art is good art when it successfully captures something 'universal'. But what, exactly?

In your essay, you emphasize mathematical universality, the hidden rhythms or harmonies underlying the world which we perceive. I would argue that once we have recognized the genius of Pollock or Mondrian we can go back to the old Masters with new eyes and see the same process at work, there is no essential difference. But that is only one dimension of aesthetic evaluation.

Seen in this light, Plato's strictures look like an attempt to artificially restrict the kinds of 'universal' that the artist is permitted to represent. Remember that Plato talks about music too, favourably contrasting music which elevates the spirits - a good marching tune - from music which merely stirs up the emotions. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the fundamental problem is that Plato has it in for the emotions in a big way.

Kant's 'Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals' is the famous example of a work of moral philosophy which rigorously distinguishes reason from emotion. An action is good only if it is done for the sake of the Moral Law, a dictate of reason. However much we may 'approve' of actions motivated by emotions like sympathy, generosity etc. these are not moral. The emotions cannot be relied upon to motivate good action. On one occasion a circumstance might touch my sympathy, on another occasion (say, I'm in a bad mood) my reaction might be callous indifference. The demands of morality, by contrast, are universal and do not permit exceptions.

From the perspective of a Kantian morality, it would still be possible to make judgements about the moral dimension of works of art, but such judgements would be severely limited to consideration of the authenticity of the artist's approach, or intention not to deceive.

What then can we make of the claim that a work of art is intended to 'offend' and does so for a good reason? (There is a book by Anthony Julius entitled, 'Transgressions: The Offences of Art'.) For example, one might seek to 'shock the viewer out of his complacency'. I can imagine how Chapman's sculptures (which I have not seen) might do this. That would hardly do as a description of what makes the work a work of art. A newspaper photo of the consequences of the tsunami might have a similar effect but is not art. So art is about the precise way this is done. All one can say in general is that this cannot be done without engaging with the emotions. The evaluation of such a work necessarily has a moral dimension.

The meaning of the newspaper photo is exhausted by its function to depict a particular event for the purposes of conveying information (or, perhaps, stinging the viewers' emotions sufficiently to make them reach into their pockets). Art, by contrast, aims at something beyond the particular 'here-and-now', at something 'universal'.

This is not to say very much. If the researchers are right, if Pollock and Mondrian have succeeded in tapping into deep mathematical truths then this as I have said is one dimension of aesthetic assessment, which connects with morality - if at all - in a very general way. However much one may be convinced by this example, it cannot be generalized to cover every aspect of every artwork. Other processes are at work which have a lot more to do (although by no means exclusively) with the emotions and (consequently) with morals.

All the best,