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The Classic Readings

David E. Cooper, David E. Cooper

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eBook - ePub


The Classic Readings

David E. Cooper, David E. Cooper

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The newly expanded and revised edition of Cooper's popular anthology featuring classic writings on aesthetics, both historical and contemporary

The second edition of this bestselling anthology collects essays of canonical significance in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, featuring a wide range of topics from the nature of beauty and the criteria for aesthetic judgement to the value of art and the appreciation of nature.

  • Includes texts by classical philosophers like Plato and Kant alongside essays from art critics like Clive Bell, with new readings from Leonardo da Vinci, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Ronald W. Hepburn, and Arthur C. Danto among others
  • Intersperses philosophical scholarship with diverse contributions from artists, poets, novelists, and critics
  • Broadens the scope of aesthetics beyond the Western tradition, including important texts by Asian philosophers from Mo Tzu to Tanizaki
  • Includes a fully-updated introduction to the discipline written by the editor, as well as prefaces to each text and chapter-specific lists of further reading

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Plato, The Republic, Book 10

This reader begins, appropriately, with a section from the most famous philosophical work of all, one which contains the first sustained discussion of art in Western literature and the most abidingly influential. Few subsequent discussions of artistic representation and the relations of art to psychology, ethics and politics have failed to engage with Plato on these, the two main topics of Book 10 (595a–608b). The great Athenian philosopher, pupil of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, who lived from c.427 to 347 BCE, remains the most robust advocate of art’s “heteronomy”, its answerability to standards outside itself, for Plato insists that artistic values be subordinate to those of truth and moral virtue. This insistence should not be confused with the demand of Tolstoy (Chapter 13 below) and some Marxists that these values be defined in terms of moral or social ones. Plato’s subordination of artistic to other values presupposes that they can be independently identified.
Book 10 is not the only place in The Republic, let alone Plato’s dialogues as a whole, in which art and literature are discussed. Earlier, in Books 2–3, he has examined their role – or, rather, lack of one – in the education of the young, especially of the future “guardians” of the ideal State which it is The Republic’s task to describe. By the end of Book 3, he has concluded that most representational poetry, and certainly the enactment of dramatic verse, should be kept out of education, primarily because of the “lies” it tells and the baleful influence on the young of “impersonating” evil or corrupt characters. The question is left open, however, as to whether there should be a more stringent, indeed universal, ban on poetry in the State.
The issue is resumed in Book 10, supposedly a conversation between Socrates (“I”) and Plato’s brother, Glaucon (“He”). By this stage Plato is armed with his theory of the Forms (or “types” in the present translation), and his accounts of the just State and its ideal citizens. The Forms, which constitute “true” reality, are abstract entities, ideal exemplars to which everyday objects are at best approximations. The Ă©lite in the Republic are the “philosopher‐kings,” whose supremely rational capacities afford them knowledge of the realm of the Forms. In ruling others, however, they do what everyone in the just State should do – that is, to stick to performing the socially beneficial task for which one is cut out by nature and education.
All these Platonic views play crucial roles in the Book 10 onslaught on art and literature. Thus the painter – whom Plato discusses before turning to the more important case of the poet – produces only a perspectivally constrained representation or imitation (mimesis) of, say, a bed which is itself merely a “copy” of what is truly real, the Form of beds. Hence, “representation and truth are a considerable distance apart.” Moreover, the argument continues, producing representations of representations is surely a trivial occupation, no serious and useful contribution to the State. Unlike the people who make and use things, after all, artists have no expert knowledge of what they represent. “Those who can, do it; those who can’t, paint it,” so to speak. Worse still, artists trade in and pander to the least rational sides of human nature: the painter to perceptual capacities all too prone to illusion (which he exploits through devices like perspective and shadowing),a and the poet to emotions which are typically disreputable and which anyway detract from the controlled life of reason. That last point is behind Plato’s “most serious allegation against representational poetry”: its “terrifying capacity for deforming” people.
In assessing Plato’s contemporary relevance, it is important to avoid anachronism: to recognize, for example, that the works of Homer and the tragedians whom he would “banish” were not considered, as they are today, “highbrow” art, but the popular literature of the time as well as educational texts and conduits for the dissemination of information and the shaping of public opinion.b When like is compared to like, it is easy to understand why Plato should continue to attract or repel. Whether or not they recognize the debt, he should surely appeal to those who would censor pornography on the ground that it presents a false and corrupting image of women; to those who are worried by the modern trend to regard novelists and playwrights as founts of wisdom on politics and the human condition at large; and to those who wonder if another modern fashion, for “letting it all hang out” or emotional and public “self‐expression,” is as healthy as its champions assume. Equally, Plato will surely repel those who feel that any strictures on the “autonomy” of art have, as their logical conclusion, the dead hand clamped upon human creativity by Stalin or the ayatollahs.
‘You know’, I said, ‘the issue of poetry is the main consideration – among many others – which convinces me that the way we were trying to found our community was along absolutely the right lines.’
‘What are you thinking of?’ he asked.
‘That we flatly refused to admit any representational poetry.1 I mean, its total unacceptability is even clearer, in my opinion, now that we’ve distinguished the different aspects of the mind.’
‘How is it clearer?’
‘Well, this is just between ourselves: please don’t denounce me to the tragic playwrights and all the other representational poets. But it looks as though this whole genre of poetry deforms its audience’s minds, unless they have the antidote, which is recognition of what this kind of poetry is actually like.’
‘What do you mean? What do you have in mind?’ he asked.
‘It’s fairly clear’, I said,...

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