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 Baudrillard, The 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?