Art and imitation: aesthetics and the value of the beautiful
Since the beginning of human history, aesthetics have played an prominent role in society and culture. The study of beauty speaks to a universality that persists regardless of other cultural realities. All civilizations utilize some type of artwork to weave the narrative of their shared experiences. This visual lexicon provides the legacy of generations across the globe, recording their rites, mores, and history. With the rise of formalized art and artistic critique, however, the question of “good” versus “bad” art has arisen. Perhaps more importantly, the methods by which one determines whether or not art is “good” has remained the subject of debate for millennia.
Philosophers like Plato and the pragmatist John Dewey seek to delimitate the methods of determining a work’s beauty and aesthetic value. Plato and Dewey demonstrate a strong contrast in their views on art, its aesthetic value and the role of mimicry in its realization. Dewey conceptualizes art as a comprehensive process in which the artist’s experience of creating the piece and the observer’s experience of viewing the piece becomes as important as its completion. The work’s worth is based not on an objective evaluation of its final incarnation, but rather as an assessment of its creative transformations. Plato, on the other hand, discerns a distinct divide between “beauty” and “art,” In fact, Plato discusses art as an antithesis of beauty, a medium that simply mimics the form of an object or concept, which is in itself a mimicry of its own ideal Form (Stanford).
The perspectives of Plato and Dewey form a dialogue that questions not only the value of art, but the system of judgments in place to assess this value. They differ in their approach to determining value, either intrinsic or applied. The relationship between beauty and value is a tenuous one — Dewey equates, among other qualities, practical potential with beauty; Plato assumes that the ideal cannot every be attained (Stanford).
Plato’s interpretation of Beauty Theory places an emphasis on the ideal Form, the concept of an Idea above all other ideas. The noblest Form of an object represents the impossible “absolute beauty,” which cannot be adequately manifested in the world of the material, as any physical representation of this abstraction will serve only as an imperfect representation of its conceptual counterpart (Clay 213). According to Plato, all art is inherently an imitation of this Form, and therefore falls short in its execution. Beauty is perceived as an intrinsic quality, starkly opposed to the synthetic nature of art, and so Plato places little emphasis on the artist as either an interpreter or a creator (Beardsley 507).
In addition, Plato addresses the objectivity of beauty. In the case of two physically identical paintings, one of which is authentic and one of which is a forgery, Plato would argue that they are, aesthetically, identical . So long as not a single empirical difference can be determined between two works, abstract information does not affect the representation of this ideal, and therefore cannot affect the beauty. Because Platonic thought conceptualizes art in relation to its unattainable ideal, both paintings are equal misrepresentations of their subject’s intrinsic beauty. No other concepts or influences should determine its value. No other qualifications apply.
On the other hand, Dewey does not ascribe to the notion of an intrinsic value or beauty in artistic work. He asserts that art, as a relationship between interrelating components on an objective plane and the subjective observer, must retain balance between the means and the end. Value comes not from any specific aspect of the finished composition; instead, art must be considered as “an experience” (Beardsley 554).
According to Dewey, the reaction of this magnitude defines the value of a piece of art. Although not a qualitative measurement, one can determine the relative worth of a work by examining its subjective effect on the viewer, which includes abstract, non-intrinsic qualities. There is no “ideal Form” to which the artist should aspire, though Dewey maintains that empirical evidence is necessary to differentiate between making an experiential value-judgment on a work and simply “liking” it. The two paintings mentioned above would, by Dewey’s standards, have a distinct inequality in their aesthetic value: the fake’s painter lacks the original artist’s experience and the viewer’s subsequent experience of seeing an authentic painting (as opposed to a print or a forgery).
Mimicry and its relation to art presents a strong point of contrast between Dewey and Plato. Dewey tends to present that mimicry is neither an inherit quality of art nor a method for creating a work equal to the original. Art invites a unique experience that can not be recreated — the artist reveals an alternative to reality (Beardsley 394). Unconstrained by the physical properties of wood or metal, the artist realizes the object at what might be more directly representative of the ideal Form of which Plato speaks.
Conversely, Plato asserts that all art is mimicry and, perhaps more significantly, imperfect mimicry. Each subsequent representation removes the observer further from absolute beauty, as opposed to forming a new reality. At no point does the artist transcend the limitations of their subject: any artwork that exists on the physical plane is an imitation of its own ideal Form, as does any other object. In portraying a subject, the artist is portraying the subject in its own impersonation of the ideal Form as well as creating an imperfect representation of the Form of a representation of that subject.
Though Plato asserts that context is not necessary to regard a subject as beautiful, some art cannot be valued based solely on its unattached content. Political art and parody both rely on a body of shared cultural to convey meaning to a viewer. In order to experience that art in a way that is meaningful and relevant, one must also be familiar with the implications and suppositions presented. In understanding a work that draws from a reality beyond the boundaries of the objective plane, the intrinsic beauty is not contained in the work’s physical manifestation but rather on its relationship to the subject is examines and amplifies (Beardsley 527). Without this relationship, the Platonic perspective would place undue value on the mechanical details of the work without acknowledging its commentary and intertextuality.
As the global conversation shifts to encompass more post-colonial voices, we begin to see a different side of many historical events whose accuracies we have come to take for granted. Without the critical context of political upheaval and cultural turmoil, the works of surrealist Diego Rivera or author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o would not be applicable to the modern percipient. Such works invite participation in an array of cultural conversations and realities, and although one might appreciate this art per se, the magnitude of these experiences requires connectivity in relation to the origin of these dialogues.
Depending on familiarity with and initial assumptions about subject matter, the observer’s subsequent experience can vary radically. The subjectivity of these experiences indicates the fluidity of aesthetic and makes a strong case against an “absolute beauty.” Especially in the rapidly globalizing culture of the Western World, audiences must be targeted and evaluated on a continuous rotation. Their interactions with and perceptions of their media dictate its orientation, just as it, in turn, dictates the predominant social views.
Ultimately, Plato and Dewey take vastly different approaches to aesthetic value that prompt a re-examination artistic value. Plato’s concepts of art as a poor imitation of the noblest form demonstrate disdain for the artist’s role as creator and interpreter. Dewey does not attempt to develop an objective determination for a work’s value, although he does emphasize and examine the relationship between art and observer. The divergent systems for determining this worth, which expand daily as new perspectives join the global consciousness, demand constant re-evaluation of the sensibilities we have developed. Examining the tension between Dewey and Plato on their views of aesthetics require us to question not only what is beautiful, but what is meaningful and how much that meaning matters.
- Beardsley, Monroe. Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, INC.
- Clay, Diskin. Platonic Questions: Dialogues with the Silent Philosopher. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. 2000.
- Leddy, Tom. “Dewey’s Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 2006. Web. 01 May 2011. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dewey-aesthetics/>.