Book Review: Plato on Art and Beauty

Ernst Gombrich lamented that Plato’s mirror analogy from Republic X (a metaphor that seemingly dismisses painting as mere imitation) had ‘haunted the philosophy of art ever since’ (p.182). Despite Plato’s apparent ambivalence towards the arts, his legacy has profoundly impacted artistic theory. Plato on Art and Beauty explores this inconsistency.

Alison Denham’s introduction makes short work of our assumptions, stating that Plato ‘cannot, and did not, fail to recognize the beauty of created works of art’ (p.xv). Denham, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St Anne’s College Oxford, unites ten experts in the field, providing a survey of recent scholarship that will appeal to students of both philosophy and art history alike.

Plato infamously banished poets from the ideal city in Republic III. This controversial statement provides the focus for Part I, ‘Understanding Plato’s Quarrel’. The authors address Plato’s proposed censorship of the arts, revealing an ongoing struggle between his defenders and detractors.

Iris Murdoch’s essay taken from The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, trawls the cannon to provide an account of the philosopher at his most acerbic, moralising and autocratic. ‘Scattered throughout his work…are harsh criticisms and indeed sneers’, sates Murdoch, perhaps ‘Plato simply did not value art’ (p.3). The argument is founded on Plato’s denigration of the deception inherent in artifice. We are introduced to Plato’s famous Cave metaphor from Republic VII; according to Murdoch, art is here compared to mere shadows on a wall – a base illusion undermined by the unflinching ‘truth’ provided by the light of the sun. At best Plato reduced artists to mere tricksters and at worst, dangerous harbingers of immorality. ‘Plato is of course a Puritan’, accuses Murdoch, exposing an ‘almost vehement rejection of the joys of this world’ (p.7).



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