Plato, Philosophy and the Arts

Heather Betts “Raison d’être” at Lindberg Galleries is “an exploration of the trial and death of the classical Athenian philosopher Socrates”. But this post is not about Heather Betts’s paintings, or the quality of her understanding of Socrates, it is just the most recent reference to Socrates that I have seen in an exhibition. And I encounter an exhibition that refers to Socrates every couple of years.

It bores and irritates me as a student of philosophy the number of artists who will refer to Plato or Socrates in their artist’s statements. (Socrates is only known from Plato’s writing, so it is hard to distinguish the views of one from the other.) It bores me – the sheer repetition and because Socratic philosophy is useless (unless you can make a career out it).

Plato’s animosity towards the arts, he would censor all art in his ideal republic, makes him a poor basis for any kind of artistic inspiration. ‘Such representations definitely harm the minds of their audiences, unless they’re inoculated against them by knowing their real nature.’ (Republic, X.1—X.8. 595a—608b covers the rejection of mimetic art.) It reminds me of this fundamentalist mullah that I saw on a YouTube video going on about how pop music is an illusion and a distraction from ‘reality’.

The repetition of Socrates and Plato irritates me because it reminds me of the poverty of philosophical education amongst artists. But enough about Socrates and Plato, more than enough has already been said. Why is it important what philosophers an artist has read and quoted in their artist statements on photocopied A4 sheets? For ideas and inspiration as artists are interpreters and communicators of current intellectual theories, creating art informed by these theories. Artists are part of chains of influence in the intellectual community, acting as communicators of philosophy, theoretical science and theology (depending on the values of the society where the artist is working).

There is not a single major philosopher who has not written about the arts, according to Arthur Danto, who has written both philosophy and art. There are other philosophers who love art and I would recommend to artists to read them rather than Plato. Why not try reading Ludwig Wittgenstein for inspiration? Or try the obscure Max Stirner who argues that making art is one the best ways of expressing your unique identity. Or even, Jean BaudrillardThe Conspiracy of Art (Semiotexte, 2005).

And artists should remember that not all philosophers are dead like Socrates (to the great relief of logicians who use his mortality as an exemplary premise in syllogisms – all men are mortal, Socrates is a man therefore Socrates is mortal – but I digress). Living philosophers are more relevant than those that have been dead for millennia. Melbourne’s own major philosopher, Peter Singer writes in a clear and enjoyable manner about ethics. If you haven’t read one of Singer’s books then you should, not because you will necessarily agree with him, but because he is a good writer. And philosophy, what ever it is, is definitely a form of literature. So who was the last philosopher you have read or referred to in your art?


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

5 responses to “Plato, Philosophy and the Arts

  • Penny Holliday

    Actually I think your writing has matured since signing up to your blog. The only philosophy I read, but I really enjoy! Thank you.

  • Robyn Bauer

    I applaud your article. Brave words and I agree with your comment about the paucity of philosophical education among artists. Add to that literature and the history of music.

  • CAP

    Socrates is a good place to start as far as asking useful questions about a controversial topic (to anything). His ‘inquisitional method’ is meant to spell out the basics of reason or logic, get you to the heart of an argument. Although, as you say, it’s Plato’s views on art that are as close as we get to a philosophy of art there, and Plato was pretty hostile to the visual arts, so there’s not a lot there, in any case.

    I like analytical philosophy, so I find philosophers like Richard Wollheim and Nelson Goodman very helpful about art and art history. I don’t have much time for the other team – Hegel and his idealism, Heidegger and his existentialism, (onto Danto, etc) but I know artists who find their lofty programmes inspiring, An art historian like E. H. Gombrich is very sophisticated, philosophically – influenced by Wittgenstein (a fellow Austrian) as well as Popper (who was also indifferent to the visual arts, but another Austrian).

    So there is a crossover there, between philosophy and art, and depending on what kind of art you like, a range of philosophy to explore the wider implications.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thinking about analytic philosophy I realized that I had forgotten to mention J.L.Austin especially his book How To Do Things With Words (1962). This book is a key to understanding a great deal of art from Duchamp’s readymades on to the YBA that rely on speech acts – basically what it is to call something art. What is more Austin is a wonderfully clear writer even if he does end up using a few technical terms to describe speech acts.

      I’m not sure that Socrates is a good place for artists or any non- philosophy student to start reading philosophy. Can’t say that I found Wolheim and Goodman that helpful when it came to Dada, Surrealism or contemporary art but Grail Marcus “Lipstick Traces” was good there.

      There are many different traditions of philosophy, even in ancient Greece there were a few, and I don’t think that the current division between anglo-american analytic philosophy and continental philosophy helps in understanding philosophy. It appears like a no true scotsman move to claim that true philosophy rests with one tradition or the other. It is worth considering even the words of mystics and dreamers even though Socrates when asked dismissed them out of hand because he didn’t like their methods.

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