Thursday, August 9, 2012

Art and Logic

At the beginning of the movie Joe vs. the Volcano, the protagonist Joe, enters an office. In the background a man is arguing on the phone.  The man is Joe’s boss, Mr. Waturi, who is shouting repeatedly over the phone, “I know he can get the job, but can he do the job!” Interestingly, in his book, The Republic, Plato seems to be asking his audience much the same question about the Philosophy and Arts. That is, while philosophers may talk about what art is, or what art does, it is very careful to point out that art and philosophy are fundamentally different.  Thus, in Book 10 of the Republic, Plato bans artists from the Republic not because art is mere imitation but because he is afraid that people will confuse the art of an artist with the art of the philosopher.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the average reader found this confusing. After all, isn’t there a substantial difference between art and philosophy? Philosophy is a study of the nature of knowledge. It is rational, it is orderly, and it is systematic. Art is a study of the human condition. It is emotional, it is empathic, and it is messy. So why does Plato expel artists from his Republic, his ideal city? Perhaps he fears the competition that artists will give philosophers, since both disciplines aim at a revelation of some type of truth, one about logic and knowledge the other about the human condition. However, Plato believed that the type of knowledge that artists communicated was an inferior type of knowledge. And even if we put that aside for a moment and admit that there are types of “truth” that each discipline espouses, at first glance these two types of truth seem very different from one another.

Plato states quite plainly that artists are solely concerned with the particulars of appearance, and as such they do not fit into the broad scheme of universal ideals that Plato believes to be the penultimate goal of the philosopher’s quest. Plato calls the refinement of knowledge aimed at revealing "universal ideals" phronesis, a word loosely translated into English as "judgment". In other words, refining our judgment is the definitive intellectual virtue. I suppose then, for Plato, there can be no match between what the artist does and what the philosopher does.

Aristotle, on the other hand, divides our knowledge of understanding into three different parts, and while part of our understanding of the world is theoretical (i.e. Plato), it is also productive and practical. Thus phronesis or judgment is not an unqualified intellectual virtue, but only in matters regarding human conduct.  Furthermore, because humanity exists as a multiplicity, and the judgment of the individual is subjective the individual can share his or her aesthetic appreciation of an art object with the community. Thus I can contemplate an object of art, appreciate it, critique it and discuss it with others and arrive at a universal understanding that reflects the multiplicity of the community.

It is interesting because, aside from judgment, the overlap between the disciplines of art and philosophy may take the form of moral virtue, by which I mean that artists goal is to create a work of art that reveals some truth about the nature of the human condition to elevate the viewer, and in the same way the philosophers the aim it to arrive at a kind of moral virtue through a refinement of phronesis. That is both discipline ultimately strive to reveal truths about the nature of existence that will ultimately better human kind.

1 comment:

scott davidson said...

I had a chance to combine my two loves in life recently and had a two weeks' holiday in wonderful France, to which I had been before, and had loved so much. I took a little Renault rental car and headed off from Paris, to the Palace of Versailles, to Chartres then southward to sunny Provence, via the Auvergne region, with the Songs of the Auvergne playing repeated on the CD player.
Magnifique, comme toujours. I saw many art galleries and followed the footsteps of artists, like poor Vincent Van Gogh.
Back home all too soon, I ordered a canvas print from, choosing this painting by Cézanne,, to remember my trip by.