Art In A Jar: Plato and the Three Questions Containing Art

Posted: December 14, 2010 in Uncategorized

The onset of a western concern with contextualizing art (and so creating it as a discipline) began with the theoretical investigations of Plato.  Specifically, in the Republic , Plato, using the always enticing and amusing voice of Socrates, lays out the idea that art, as all responsible social endeavors, should avoid deluding the populace.  Plato did this through his concept of the ideal forms and the simulating, and much remarked upon, metaphor of the shadows. The theory of the forms posits a territory of ideal entities which, as they embody the unchanging and universal for all times and places, are the constant “trues” which infuse imperfectly into our dominion of inconsistent matter and shape the untrustworthy world of physical experience.  Art in its naivety of viewing this defective corporeal world, and in attempting a replication of it in the activity of artistic work, was in the calamitous position of removing itself further and further from the ahistorical grounds of the reality of the ideals (which exist in and of themselves and are what is true in the empire of the real).  The artist through their naïve artistic production detached the viewing populace from a proper position to the universal ideas and sent them cascading into the folly of the intemperate material realm of mere opinion.  What could the philosopher do but to ask that this inadvertently misguided group of artists to either forgo their production of these truth deviating items or remove themselves from the much too susceptible viewing public?

This request by the socially responsible Plato/Socrates for artists to desist from this misguiding of the populace gives us a further insight to the problems which the philosopher-twins finds with this assemblage of innocent artists.

The world of the unchanging and constant truths of the ideals and the continually breaking and shifting world of the lived material existence are deposited by Plato as being set on a scale which moves from the high ideal forms to the low material existent.  The mind, in its proper function, should mirror this wondrous scale of hierarchy from the heights of the thought idea to the low of emotional opinion.  The good member of a society would want to replicate the astonishing scale of high and low within their own existence bringing the chain of command of the mind into line with the hierarchical scales of the true, ideal world.  The mind of reason as seat and ground of seeing the real determines the direction and actions of the emotional and opinionated reaction which wallows in the trickery of matter.  The tempting sway of affect must be subservient to idea infused mind.  Artists though moving to the ideas which motivate their art confuse the issue of this hierarchy by confirming the affect which art imbues in the citizen.  The mirror of the mind is warped by the succulent draw of the art product which plays on the disintegration and vital lack of delineation between the material and the ideal.  The citizen drawn to affective response in the midst of the idea of the art piece becomes a confused entity and unable to correctly create a appropriately complete subject.

Not only should this hierarchy be a mere reflection of the world and personhood.  It should also manifest itself in the construction of the social and political.  The Infamous Philosopher-King mirrors the high position of the rational mind and the true world of the ideals.  The Leaders of a community seeing the high and consistence ideals and letting the rational mind have transcendence over the merely emotive and affective are the proper echo of the scales of the fittingly functioning universal world. Labourers, the ones focused on the temporal and elusive shadow of material, are the unreflective residents in the regime of wrongheaded opinion, empty transistoriness and shifting vagrancies which are lodged in the artist as a being who is directed to the material and as based in the emotional misdirection of their person.  In the social body the artist, as residing in the realms of both the pursuer and reflector of the ideal and, simultaneously, as the confused relayer of the affect of the material, epitomizes a befuddled and double-bound actor in the otherwise appropriately operating community.  Claiming with catastrophic innocence their dual placement in the social hierarchy the artist threatens incoherence in the political form.

Plato placing artist as deceiver (from the true ideal forms), emotional manipulator (through affect of the art as object), and befuddler of the social (by means of asking for social acknowledgement in two realms of the community), calls forth a trajectory of containing art thinking.  To answer these concerns a multitude of responses have been detail, elaborated, and confessed, but always with the eye to the form of this Platonic Triad of art.  The First:  Art should try to tell us something (and it should probably be true or at the least not deceive us even in fiction).  The Second:  Art should move us (affect us emotionally or sway us intellectually). The third: Art should talk about or to our community (conjoin us in the social through cultural capital or critique the problems of the social-political).

What art should do:  how art should relate to the viewer, how should art relate to the social and what art means within the political, are the three questions which are contained and applied in this platonic arc to the artist and their production.

The question must yet be fashioned at this juncture:  Have we gotten much further than this three-prong circulation in the economy of thinking Art?  Isn’t this containment, like the Freudian familial triangle, a form of neurosis if we circulate continually over it (and who can’t help but thinking of Delueze here). Don’t we need to add questions to break this triad of containment?  Art Knowing, art thinking, and even the acceptance-normalizing embedding of art in institutions are contained continually here and impede us to forming the next question.


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