On Art, Action and Meaning

Arthur_danto Arthur Danto in the NYT's Opinionator tries to answer: “Is performance art really art at all?”:

We must determine what art is or how it is defined before answering this question. The oldest theory of art in the West is to be found in Plato, in Book X of “The Republic.” There, Socrates defines art as imitation. He then declares that it is very easy to get perfect imitations — by means of mirrors. His intent is to show that art belongs to the domain of reflections, shadows, illusions, dreams. He proceeds to map the universe in terms of three degrees of reality. The highest reality is found in the domain of what he calls “ideas,” the forms of things. Ideas are grasped by the mind. The next degree of reality is possessed by ordinary objects, the kind carpenters make. The artist only know how ordinary objects look, as rendered in painting or drawings. The carpenter’s knowledge is higher than the artist’s: his beds, for example, hold the sleeping body or, more strenuously, bodies locked in love. The highest knowledge is possessed by those who grasp the idea of the bed, understanding how it supports the body. The lowest knowledge, if it is knowledge at all, is the artist’s ability to draw pictures of beds. They only show appearances.

This famous design of the universe and its degrees of reality was clearly constructed to put art in its place — the domain of illusions, shadows, dreams. The artist is cognitively useless. And yet the Greeks wanted to build their curriculum on mere poetry – on “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”! I treat this in my essay “The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art. ”

It explains why philosophers tend to have little use for art. Several of Plato’s dialogues stress the inferiority of art — for example “Ion,” “The Statesman” and “The Laws.” The political message of “The Republic” is that philosophers, at home in the realm of ideas, should be kings. Artists don’t even belong in the Republic!

Meanwhile, the mimetic theory, as it is called, had a certain power. Aristotle, in his “Poetics,” characterizes plays and epics as imitations of actions, such as the death of Hektor. Ion the rhapsode tells stories from the epics, moving his audience to tears. There are no records of ancient performances, which might have been ordeals, demonstrating the performer’s stamina or strength.

But a performance is not the imitation of an action, but the action itself. It is art and reality in one.

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