Art as representation
Art, imitation and representation
The earliest known theories of art in Western philosophy were proposed by Plato and his student Aristotle. The particular artform that most concerned them was drama. In his Republic, Plato presented a design for an ideal state. In the course of outlining his utopia, he argued that poets—particularly dramatists—should be outlawed. In order to justify the exclusion of dramatic poets from the ideal state, Plato had to give reasons. And the reasons Plato found had to do with what he regarded as the nature of drama. According to Plato, the essence of drama was imitation—the simulation of appearances. That is, actors in plays imitate the actions of whomever they represent. In Medea, the actors, for example, imitate having arguments. Plato thought that this was problematic primarily because he believed that appearances appeal to the emotions and that stirring up the emotions is socially dangerous. An emotional citizenry is an unstable citizenry, ready to be swayed by demagogues rather than by good sense.
Arguments like Plato’s against poetry are still heard today when it comes to discussions of the mass media. Often we are told that TV with its seductive imagery—its seductive appearances—makes for an unthinking electorate. Carefully designed, visually arresting, political advertisements appeal to the emotions of the voters rather than to their minds. If Plato were alive today, he would probably want to censor political advertisements for the same reason that he wanted to ban dramatic poetry.
Aristotle, however, believed that Plato’s case was overstated. Though he agreed that drama provokes an emotional response from audiences, he did not think that this is all that drama does. Tragedy evokes pity and fear in spectators, but, he said, it does this for the purpose of catharsis—that is,