Philosophers have given wildly different answers over the centuriesby Naomi Goulder / October 31, 2016 / Leave a comment
The Tate has among its explicit priorities “to develop people” and “to inspire learning.” But how exactly does art develop and inspire us? And what is its special advantage over science? The answer, with roots in Aristotle and developed by Freud, turns on the complex interplay between belief and desire.
In perhaps the most famous intellectual assault on art, Plato (c. 429—347 BC) proposes to banish artists from his ideal republic, branding them a danger to our learning and our souls. Art has power, he tells us, but that power is primarily negative. Far from developing our characters or inspiring us to learn, artists are entertainers who pander to rogue elements in our psychologies. They provide false images that minister to and reinforce false desires—desires that would disappear if only we became conscious of the false beliefs on which they were based. Artistic production is stultifying fantasy-fulfillment.
The notion of a “false” desire hints at a profound connection between knowledge and psychological health. My desire for what’s in the glass is “false” if, say, I falsely believe that what’s in the glass is healthy, whereas it’s really deadly poison. In a sense I don’t “truly” want to drink what’s in the glass (assuming I don’t want to die), even though I think I do. It is this idea that leads Plato to suggest that, when our desires are based on false beliefs, pandering to them is only a way of entertaining us at the expense of what we truly want.
Plato had little confidence in the ability of artists to produce works that would develop, educate, or inspire—but he did believe that genuine beauty would achieve just that. If an artist turned up who had the ability to produce not fantasy (which deals in tawdry illusions) but works of genuine imagination (which deal in beautiful images or metaphors that draw us towards truth), he would be welcome in the city. As Iris Murdoch puts it, Plato “wants to cut art off from beauty, [only] because he regards beauty as too serious a matter to be commandeered by [ordinary] art” (The Fire & the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, 1977).
Aristotle, in his Poetics…