Plato and Art

Many have debated the purpose and validity of the art-making process. And many have also asserted, that the making of visual art is contrary to the second commandment Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

Most of the negative feelings about the “making” of visual art and artifacts, is because of the concept of idol-worshiping. And also of, relating to, or characterized by solipsism (René Descartes) or extreme egocentricity.

The writer/philosopher who was the most vocal critic of the arts was Plato in his famed treatise the Republic. He recommended exiling dramatic poets from the ideal state and also proposed a meticulous program of censorship.

Plato’s views on Art

Plato asserted that art can not represent reality. Art is just a copy of life, and a collection of “mere appearances”. He claimed that the changing physical world is a poor copy of the perfect and changeless original. In his Theory of the Forms, he claimed that the only true reality is the unchanging world of the forms that God created. In Plato’s view, all that an artist can accomplish by creating artifacts is just poor imitation. Plato’s theory of art imitation is expressed in Book X of the Republic.

Art and Education

Additionally, Plato asserted that teaching art as part of the educational curriculum was a threatening and dangerous influence on the young. This is because the arts, he believed, are powerful shapers of character. And the arts can have negative effects in educating the young. Therefore, he proposed to banish poets out of his ideal Republic and also advocated severe censoring of music and painting as a means of controlling the arts.  Thus, the citizens of his ideal city of Kallipolis (Kallipolis is the Greek term for Plato’s just city) would be protected.

Imitative art (Mimesis) is bad because it is a copy of something illusory. It is worth elaborating here on the greek concept of Mimesis:

“Mimesis (/mɪˈmiːsɪs, mə-, maɪ-, -əs/;[1] Ancient Greek: μίμησις mīmēsis, from μιμεῖσθαι mīmeisthai, “to imitate”, from μῖμος mimos, “imitator, actor”) is a critical and philosophical term that carries a wide range of meanings, which include imitation, representation, mimicry, imitation, receptivity, nonsensuous similarity, the act of resembling, the act of expression, and the presentation of the self.[2]

In ancient Greece, mimesis was an idea that governed the creation of works of art, in particular, with correspondence to the physical world understood as a model for beauty, truth, and the good. Plato contrasted mimesis, or imitation, with diegesis, or narrative. After Plato, the meaning of mimesis eventually shifted toward a specifically literary function in ancient Greek society, and its use has changed and been reinterpreted many times since.”-Wikipedia

Plato also believed that dramatic poetry was not good. But other branches of poetry, were OK, i.e. hymns to the gods and eulogies of good people. Also, not all poets, painters, sculptors and architects were to be banished. Artists who produced the kind of art that embodied beauty that accompanies moral goodness were acceptable to Plato.

Contrary to popular belief, Plato was not against the complete removal art subjects from the educational curriculum in his ideal city-state.

It is also important to note that Plato’s attacks on the arts in his Republic, couldn’t be more appropriate in describing the current state of our culture. Literature and filmmaking concentrate on producing few instances of the dull good while glorifying the charm of violence.

Related Posts

Also, read the related Blog posts as follows: Plato’s AcademiaPlato and Justice, Plato’s Duality, Plato’s Imitation Theory, The Republic Lead subjects, Plato’s Regimes, Art as Imitation, Duality in Plato’s Republic, Dystopia Connotations, Utopia Connotations, What is Utopia, Plato’s Republic, Who was Plato, Plato’s Visual Utopia book

Featured image artwork, “Plato and Art” – Illustration by Daniel Heller


Great Thinkers, Plato
Plato’s Aesthetics
Culture, Art, and Poetry in the Republic