Art Truth Value
In different ways, Plato, Aristotle, Winckelmann, and Burke all support an ancient philosophical concept, that art is a form of imitation. These variations can involve both internal propositions and external targets, actualized in the artistic cycle. This treatise is about truth and value as connected components within the overall art process. I propose that the concept of imitation can extend to truth. I argue that art, a multifaceted human endeavor, connects emotion and reason in imaginative possibility, for the purpose of value expression as an aesthetic judgment. This feeds an essential human need to acquire information, knowledge, and skill, thereby fueling the desire of curiosity. Proceeding in a systematic way, outlined in the above flow chart of conceptual relationships, I mark truth as one of many interrelated modalities that imagination judges in the art event. Historically mimesis is the representation or imitation of actuality in a work of art. Representation is either a presentation to the mind or a tangible rendering of something as a conception. Imitation is an effort to make an accurate copy derived from an existing original. Truth is similar to imitation, because truth is not something that exists in nature, but rather is a human equivalence of nature in the form of an idea or proposition. Existence just exists and is neither true nor false in itself, but simply is. This essay involves uniting the duality of non-rational feeling in relation with rational reason, embedded in a truth-belief subsystem. Furthermore, emotion and reasoning must combine, because “truth springs from the feelings of the heart” (Burke 64). As explained by Winckelmann, considering the emotional root of beauty, even “the Renaissance artist was expected not only to portray truth to nature [existence], but also to create beauty” (35). From the contemporary position, truth and its value assessment are only resident within high-level consciousness that is self-aware and able to consider existence in terms of internal contemplation relative to external events. Only a subject can have knowledge about something other than the self that hosts the awareness. Humans can function with reflection of the conditions into which they are embedded. The main differences between the philosophers here considered are their widely divergent ontological and epistemological views of existence. The idea of truth, to a certain extent, depends on an existence that is completely plausible, and thus understandable. Aristotle provides clarification, because “to say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true” (Metaphysics 1011b25). Humans seem to operate from the subjective principle that their understanding is obviously universal, in that all others with sufficient insight should agree. Kant famously supported this proposition with his claim of the subjective universality of beauty. This notion of the particular, as a conditional occurrence relative to the universal, is a central tension in aesthetics.
For Plato, art is an imitation of the appearance of physical reality, which is itself an imitation of higher-ideals, his version of truth. These are the Platonic Forms, non-material abstract ideas described in the Allegory of the Cave (Plato Book 7). Plato condemns most art as imitative lies, and “the stories they tell now must be thrown out” (57). Furthermore, the artist adversely meddles among the social classes, which is the “greatest harm that can happen to the city” (Plato 120). Plato is concerned about three main problems: lousy artists, false art images, and art corrupting the mind. Art activates the imagination, arouses emotions, and bypasses rationality—all negative attributes. Consequently, any imitative art must be refused (Plato 297). Plato is adamant in his condemnation, but also conflicted, for “if the imitative poetry that aims at pleasure has any argument to show it should have a place in a well-governed city, we would gladly welcome it back, since we are well aware of being charmed by it ourselves” (312). This opens up a more generous avenue for Aristotle. Aristotle’s central idea is that although all art forms are imitative, they have potential to enhance life quality. Evidence of this is our pleasure in looking at things. Aided by the aesthetically beautiful, art in the form of theater is a better educator than history because it is universal (general rather than particular). For Winckelmann, the highest aim of art concerns education, with “the capacity of perceiving beauty [combining] both the person and the object, the containing and the contained” (89). Furthermore, “the beautiful is more comprehensive than beauty [involving] everything that is thought, designed and executed” (Winckelmann 89). Because art is an imitator of nature, it “should at all times aim at what is natural in the creation of beauty” (Winckelmann 102). In addition, because the best imitators were the ancient Greeks, “the history of art is intended to show the origin, progress, change, and downfall of art” (Winckelmann 104). An important emphasis is on what is new and different.
Winckelmann demands curiosity, because “in art, knowledge precedes [italics mine] beauty; being based on exact, severe rules, its teachings at the beginning have necessarily a precise and vigorous definiteness” (107). Curiosity also drives Plato, because “surely the love of learning and philosophy are the same” (56). Given that the philosopher has a voracious desire for all learning, his curiosity is far greater than the artisan who learns limited by interest only in his craft. Aristotle was not picking a quarrel with Plato, but rather offering another way of thinking about poetic curiosity. For Aristotle, imitation is not about ideal forms, but rather about human action. He felt that curiosity is how we acquire knowledge, and we take enormous pleasure in imitation based on desire to know and understand. Burke tells us “the first and the simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind is curiosity” (29). Object distinction and degree of difference are critical consciousness modalities, and “succession and uniformity of parts are what constitute the artificial infinite” (Burke 68). Similarity and variation establish the patterns that allow for effective functioning in an otherwise uncertain existence. In this vein, Burke says emotions associated with self-preservation are the strongest (79). Practical adaptation does not require complete understanding, but rather an emotive prediction of potential action consequences.
Winckelmann privileges emotive inner sense, which “must be ready and swift, since first impressions are the strongest and come before reflection: what we feel after reflection is weaker” (95). For Plato, emotional desire is the instinctual but irrational component of human behavior. Reason connects with virtue, discipline, and self-control. Desire correlates with immediate vulgar gratification of the senses. Plato argues that to reach an ideal state of being, reason must vanquish emotion and desire. For Aristotle, emotions do not constitute a separate agency or module, but are needed for survival and social harmony. Our capacity for morality is a result of learning to feel the right emotions under proper circumstances. Tragedy targets a particular band of emotions, fear and piety. By arousing fear and piety, our emotional capacities are positively affected in a catharsis. Therefore, emotions contained within art are ethically and psychologically beneficial, when intense feeling can restore a proper balance. Showing the limits of human agency, recognition is the move from a state of ignorance to knowledge, as “the best recognition of all is that which arise out of the actual course of events” (Aristotle 27). Reversal is change in fortune, when expectations are overturned that forces the audience to think, to put the pieces together, to construct unity. The parts must fit together to make a whole, with a beginning, middle, and end, “since . . . the passions are the winds which impel our bark over the sea of life, with which the poet sails, and on which the artist soars” (Aristotle 119).
Yet Aristotle believes humans act through understanding from direct observation, unique because universal judgments come from particular experiences. Philosophy is rooted in a basic human instinct to seek knowledge, because “understanding is extremely pleasant” (Aristotle 7). For Aristotle, Platonic universal forms were not necessarily attached to each object or concept, and each instance of an object or a concept must be uniquely analyzed. On the other hand, Plato is arguing reason is concerned with the overall ideal good as a unified whole, competing with desire as the cause of duality. Winckelmann recognizes this duality, in that “the Romantic artists broke through rules; the artist guided by reason accepted them” (Winckelmann 30). Reason corresponding to truth was the guiding principle of artistic creation in the eighteenth century, before the full impact of Romanticism.
Full of tension over the issue of reason, Winckelmann affirms that to improve art means to “draw nearer to the truth of nature” (131). Just like Burke, he further complicates the issue, claiming that “truth springs from the feelings of the heart” (Winckelmann 64). In his view, the Renaissance artist was expected not only to portray truth to nature, but also to imagine and invent beauty (Winckelmann 33). Recognizing these ambiguities, Winckelmann says “beauty is one of the great mysteries of nature, whose influence we all see and feel; but a general, distinct idea of its essential must be classed among the truths yet undiscovered” (117). Plato taught that ideas, not nature, are ultimately real, and different from non-ideal physical manifestation. Then certainly, most men [producers, craftsmen, farmers, artisans, etc.] “would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things” (Plato 515c). Under his Republic, real truth is only accessible by the extensively trained and properly socialized philosopher-kings. For Aristotle, truth is shown by experience, and it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation. With tragedy “an imitation of an action,” he empirically establishes the close relationship between truth and imitation (Aristotle 11). In seeing images, what happens is that by viewing we understand and come closer to truth.
Aristotle also lays out the elements of successful imitation. The poet must imitate either things as they are, things as they are thought to be, or things as they ought to be. For Aristotle, the poet’s function is to describe not what has happened but what might happen. This requires imagination, for “the poet must be a maker of plots” (Aristotle 16). While the poet cannot change the tragic plot narrative, he must discover for himself how skillfully to handle the traditional materials, creating action unity (Aristotle 23). Nevertheless, “feeling is required for beauty . . . and must be aroused and restored by the imagination” (Aristotle 92). This beauty is like an “idea conceived without the aid of the senses, which might be generated in a lofty understanding and in a happy imagination” (Aristotle 132). Meanwhile for Burke, imagination is a desirable growth process considered in terms of how subjective taste can evolve and yet still be “universal” (16). Thus, taste is an objective principle found in all humans (Burke 20-21), that differs only in terms of subjective degree and not by measure. So great artists, like Michelangelo, possess a fertile imagination and taste to a higher degree (Winckelmann 87). The judgment structure (form) is universal, while the particular evaluation (content) is subjective, as “men of the best Taste by consideration, come frequently to change these early and precipitate judgments” (Burke 25). Paradoxically, Plato invokes more tensions relative to imagination, although perhaps aware of the conflict. Through proper training, imaginative mental modalities access higher-ideals, as a conception of absolute perfection.
Plato identifies the Form of the Good as the highest value. This form is the one that allows a philosopher-in-training to advance to a philosopher-king. It cannot be clearly seen or explained, but once recognized allows realization of all other forms. In a unity of the virtues, to know the good is to be the good. In Plato's view, art has no access to this superlative value. For Aristotle, reason is the highest form of virtue, but it is by no means the key to possessing all virtues. In other words, Aristotle denies the unity of the good, recognizing the value of observation and experimentation, and the value of art. Winckelmann proposes that recombinations of the observed, to create idealized art forms, are virtuous. Hence “excellence in art and handiwork of every kind was particularly prized; the best workman in the most humble craft might succeed in rendering his name immortal . . . the uses to which art was applied sustained its greatness.” (Winckelmann 116). Art as imitation of an idealized empirical actuality, in this amalgamation, combines emotion and reason imaginatively judged by value.
Aristotle, and Hippocrates G. Apostle. Metaphysics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Malcolm Heath, London: Penguin, 1997.
Plato. Republic. Translated with an Introduction by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2004.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Edited by Adam Phillips, Oxford World’s Classics, 2009.
Winckelmann, Johann Joachim, and David. G. Irwin. Writings on Art. Translated by David. G. Irwin. London: Phaidon, 1972.