Platonic ideas compatible with art?

Titu asked:

What is the connection between a theory of art and the concept of the world of ideas/ forms?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I assume you know about Plato’s theory of ideas, since you are asking for the connection from there to art. But although Plato denies a role to art in value-laden human activities, most thinkers who came after him (including his pupil Aristotle) found ways of protesting against his strictures, with varying degrees of conviction.

The connection of which you speak was not, however, accomplished until early in the 19th century by Schopenhauer. He unveiled the one criterion that all preceding arguments had missed: That the Platonic forms/ideas, as “Urbilder”, are archetypal images of perfection, but have no independent existence. They are after all ideas; and there can be no traffic down from heaven into human minds as this would imply a kind of empirical contact. Rather, says Schopenhauer, the Platonic idea is in fact identical to Kant’s “Ding an sich”, a noumenon or “creature of the mind”. What does this mean? That Platonic forms, like Kants “Dinge an sich”, are purely imaginary constructs which evolved in the cognitive mind after the digestion of phenomenal impressions. Hence it is our cognition that manufactures “immutable essences” and “fundamental archetypes” after the event. In a word: one cannot think of either Platonic ideas nor of “Dinge an sich” without first having their actual counterparts before one’s eyes. And so everything in the world that Plato wished to reduce to ideas/forms is in fact a Platonic idea/form in its own right, and ditto for Kant’s “Dinge”. We deduce the type from the particular, not the other way around. And so, by this turnabout, we come to the ideas and forms of art.

Is a statue a copy of reality? By no means. Even Cicero chastised Plato for this error, maintaining that Phidias depicted the “ideal form” of the goddess, not the living goddess herself. How right he was! Just consider that none of the divinities is reducible to the form of “the god or goddess”. Some measure of individuation is indispensable, even among the immortals!

It was Schopenhauer’s merit to draw this consequence — namely, that every work of art is an “Urbild” in itself — unique and unrepeatable. Every authentic work of art is both, a type and an individual, but the type exists only ideally, in virtue of our categorisation of genres.

It is on this account that the modern commodification of art is beset by considerable anguish. There are always clever people around whose fakes and forgeries can delude the best experts, and this has repercussions in a business where art is traded as money and investment. Paradoxically, however, it does not affect Schopenhauer’s dictum. Even a forged painting is a unique work, and a fake only when its author hides his/her name. A buyer who acquires it for cheap and actually enjoys it will not complain as long as they are aware that the name in the corner is mere decoration.

Which leaves us with one last thought. The foregoing made it clear (I hope) that the connection between the theory of art and theory of ideas is altogether spurious. It remains attractive to some; but neither Plato nor any Platonist could clinch the point, because at bottom the whole notion of copulating art with the eternal ideas is simply a category error. Whereas those who look for “soul food” in the arts are at least on right track. What we look for in a poem are not the fine words, nor the lovely melodies in music, nor the splendid colours in a painting. We expect them to “speak” to us, to appeal to our affections; and in this respect every art lover brings his own “archetypes” to the experience, to encounter his/her pleasure or catharsis in the collision between them.

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