ARTicles | Against Plato – What is the Purpose of Art?

By August 1, 2014Archive

Gustav Pysander Einar Björnsson Joel Åberg 1912 Sandviken

 “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” – Robert Frost

Quick story: the last time I critiqued a major intellectual giant (in college) I said his claims were “academically laughable.” I still got an A, but I also got a comment from my Bible professor in the margins saying “says the novice to the scholar…” Since then, I’ve attempted (unsuccessfully) to retain a more charitable, less abrasive tone on those occasions that I make major objections to known shapers of civilization. Today, I’m taking on Plato (you know, father of Western philosophical thought in general — protégé of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle, yada yada yada). Forgive me in advance.

So far we’ve established what art is (the imagination incarnate) and why humans make it (we are natural born sub-creators). But is there an ultimate purpose to art? Should we be aiming for something when we write, paint, or compose?

Plato thought these questions don’t really matter and if you were an artist in his utopia as described in The Republic, he (or actually Socrates) would have kicked you out.

Before we go any further, we need a quick primer on the Platonic theory of Forms. Plato believed that there were two realities: our world and the world of Forms. In the world of Forms there exists an ideal version of everything, created by God. One perfect table (which all tables in our world attempt to imitate), one perfect shovel, one perfect tree, etc. Got it?

Anyway, in his philosophical discourses in Plato’s Republic, Socrates lays out what the perfect society would look like. In a city ruled by philosopher-kings, known as the Guardians, the poets would be cast out. He wishes this weren’t so, but he can’t find any argument for their civic usefulness (we’ll come back to this later). Briefly, Socrates had three major objections to poets:

  1. They don’t know what they’re talking about because they don’t have true knowledge like the philosophers do. No real knowledge can come from poetry.
  2. Poetry and art deal with images and cannot be truly “known.” The “stuff” poetry and art deals with is twice removed from the true reality: the world of Forms. For example, in the world of forms there exists an apple tree; it’s perfect in every way. On Earth, a man plants an apple tree; it’s pretty good. An artist paints a picture of an apple tree; now the perfection of the chair is getting really muddled. If you need a visual, here’s a handy chart. According to Plato’s logic, art is an imitation of an imitation and therefore presents a counterfeit reality. This doesn’t just apply to painting and physical objects, but poetry, storytelling (Plato wasn’t a huge fan of Homer), and song.
  3. Because poets deal in what amounts to illusion, poetry corrupts the human soul’s ability to seek “the truth.” Only philosophy can provide rational thought. Poetry (and therefore all art) turns people from the most real to the least real. In this view, Plato creates a dichotomy that concludes: philosophy=rational, and art=irrational because it appeals to human passions. Since it appeals to the passions, art can promote bad morals.

Therefore the danger posed by poetry is immense because it appeals to something to which even the best (the most philosophical) are liable, and induces a dream-like, “uncritical” state in which we lose ourselves in our passions. Ultimately, Plato (through Socrates) determines that the TRUTH of philosophy is better than the ILLUSION of poetry.

I disagree. Plato is presenting false dichotomy by claiming that art is epistemologically bankrupt—that it cannot provide true knowledge. Humans are not just brains on a stick and pure, cerebral rationality doesn’t necessarily corner the market on “truth.” Once examined more closely, the purpose of art is not only to delight us, but to teach us. This is something that even the author of Ecclesiastes saw as necessary: “The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (Ecclesiastes 12:10).

Every piece of art reflects a worldview – either explicitly (usually bad) or implicitly (usually better); to not assume so is naïve. However, art is way more than JUST a worldview. If it wasn’t, then it wouldn’t be art; it would be a dissertation or a systematic theology textbook. Art is meant to assemble our interpretation of reality and reinterpret our experience into meaning – therefore art is saying something. Heck, look at Dante or Milton; poems used to have an “argument” section. For instance, take Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out –” (yes, he did more than just “The Road Not Taken”):

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard

And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,

Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.

And from there those that lifted eyes could count

Five mountain ranges one behind the other

Under the sunset far into Vermont.

And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,

As it ran light, or had to bear a load.

And nothing happened: day was all but done.

Call it a day, I wish they might have said

To please the boy by giving him the half hour

That a boy counts so much when saved from work.

His sister stood beside him in her apron

To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,

As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,

Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—

He must have given the hand. However it was,

Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!

The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,

As he swung toward them holding up the hand

Half in appeal, but half as if to keep

The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—

Since he was old enough to know, big boy

Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—

He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—

The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’

So. But the hand was gone already.

The doctor put him in the dark of ether.

He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.

And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.

No one believed. They listened at his heart.

Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.

No more to build on there. And they, since they

Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Now, it is grossly irresponsible to divine an author’s entire perception of reality from a single work. We’re not going to make any generalizations here. However, this poem IS meant to tell us something. Look at that last line. Frost seems to be commenting on the insignificance of our lives on this earth. We can confirm his intention by the allusion in the title of the poem. It’s from Act V, scene v of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when he learns of his wife’s death:

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

As a result, Frost’s poem “Out, out –” comments on how fragile and unpredictable life can be (and in Macbeth’s context, leads to a severe conclusion of nihilism). This could be taken to illustrate the universe’s general indifference to our deaths, or maybe not. However, to me, the tone of the poem makes it pretty obvious which lesson Frost is attempting to teach us. But even if you disagree with the author’s conclusion, it’s still profitable for you as a reader to analyze and enjoy it (and we’ll revisit this concept in two weeks when we discuss how to evaluate art). C. S. Lewis, lover of fiction, took joy in the fact that literature presents us with different perspectives than our own:

“The mark of strictly literary reading, as opposed to scientific or otherwise informative reading is that we need not believe or approve what is said… [because] we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself… We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own” (136-137).

Despite the purpose of fiction to instruct, literature is clearly (and primarily) about delight and enjoyment. If a work of art starts being overly didactic at the expense of being beautiful, it might as well just be an essay or logical proof. The delightfulness and beauty of art is still its primary purpose. Just soak in the imagery of this sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley titled “Ozymandias” (+10 nerd points if you catch the Breaking Bad connection; +100 if you catch the comic book one).

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Here, the author is giving us a stark and powerful image told beautifully through the precise arrangement of words. But there is more here. The beauty does not simply delight, it instructs. The powerful and ironic imagery exposes the futility of pride and the equalizing sands of time.

I hesitate to say it, but Plato was wrong. Art does teach us. It can communicate truth. It presents beauty. Moreover, art is purposefully inefficient; doesn’t need to justify itself to be let into “the city.” In his short story “Leaf by Niggle,” J. R. R. Tolkien challenges Plato’s demand that art needs to be justified. In the story, two men (wrongly) have a laugh at the main character’s chosen subject of painting: a leaf (which later turned into a tree, which expanded to a landscape, and so on). They joke that when asked why he painted it, he simply said because it was pretty! *cue bad guy laughs*

Now, don’t take this the wrong way as if Tolkien is promoting art without teaching. Even without some big philosophical statement, by painting that “pretty” leaf, Niggle is still making the big philosophical statement that beauty exists and can be known. These bad guys just don’t get it. As Barrs notes, “Art needs no justification; it is part of the created order” (22).

In sum, the purpose of art is to delight – to light fire to the imagination, to please our eyes and our ears – and to teach us something. Besides, with no art at all, who would want to live in Plato’s perfect little “utopia” anyway?

Justin Worley

Author Justin Worley

Former intern at iNVERSION, Justin Worley recently moved back to the Bay with his wife and teaches high school English. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinWorley_

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