In the Republic, a dialogue about justice, Socrates and a group of young men put poetry or artwork on trial. One of the primary pieces of evidence against art is that it is deceptive. For instance, one can paint a very realistic picture of a dog. Yet, the dog in the painting isn’t a real dog. Instead we are given the appearance of a dog, which, for all we know, may not be realistic after all. Artists, as we know, are prone to taking poetic license in their work–modifying elements to highlight one thing over another, covering up something judged distasteful, or reimagining the dog altogether. (Not that one would do that with my dog. One could not imagine a better dog than my Tim). Art, you see, lies about what what is true.
All of this is highly ironic, of course. On one level, the Republic is a companion piece to the Apology where we learn that one of the causes for Socrates being brought to trial and eventually put to death is because of a poetic depiction of him – one that is comically presented in Aristophanes’s Clouds. In this way, The Republic is Plato’s response to Aristophanes, asking how the poet might be treated if he were similarly brought to justice. At the same time, however, we know that The Republic is itself a piece of poetry – a dialogue that features an imagined conversation between Socrates and some friends. Just as it is difficult to say absolutely whether Athens was wrong to execute Socrates, there are good arguments on both sides, so The Republic is ultimately ambiguous about the justice or injustice of art.
In one of the central images The Republic, Socrates describes the city as if it were a cave. The people in the cave sit with their legs and necks chained, forced to face a wall. On the wall, there are images, shadows of puppets and artifacts that the caves “rulers” hold up in front of a fire that sits behind our citizens. The cave dwellers can only see these shadows. They believe that the poetry or the art that is reflected on the wall is reality in and of itself. On one level, this is an image of the kind of deception that poetry makes possible. And yet, the allegory about the cave is an allegory about us. We are those prisoners. So what are the images that we see that we claim are reality in and of itself?
In the Aesthetics, Hegel writes,”the pure appearance of art has the advantage that it points through and beyond itself, and …hints at something spiritual of which it gives us an idea, whereas immediate appearance does not present itself as deceptive but rather as the real and the true (9). Hegel is responding to those who complain that art deceives. For as he notes, as far as lies go, it’s not a particularly good one – anyone looking at a piece of art knows full well that it is a representation or a reflection of something else, something more real. When looking at art, we, like Socrates reading The Clouds, are in on the joke. We know that it is not what it appears to be, but points to something greater and more true beyond itself. And further, it invites us to reflect on what this more “spiritual” truth might be. Alternatively, Hegel argues, it is the material world that surrounds us that is the true deceiver. We, like people in Plato’s cave, look at the tree, the rock, the ocean and think that they are real. We imagine, Plato and Hegel suggest, that they are truth in and of themselves. Pointing to, reflecting nothing larger than what we can see, touch, hear or taste.
In this, Plato suggests we are imprisoned. Artwork, like Socrates in Athens, asks us to look beyond our finite existences and the material world we inhabit. They seek to invoke wonder about the possibility of another world, one beyond this, which is greater and more true yet, even if that world exists only metaphysically. It is that world, he argues, that our world is a mere reflection of and which artwork reveals to us in exactly the moment that we realize that we are being deceived.
Socrates does disrupt the city. He, like Aristophanes, goes into the cave and tells people to untie themselves (for their hands and minds are free) and to seek a truer world, one animated by a justice and goodness such that it designed to share itself in the finitude of matter and our lives.