Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Plato, pleasure, and the arts

Plato sometimes gets a bad press for his views on the value of art, mostly because of his insistence in Republic on cleaning up the content of poetry, his concentration on the various potentially harmful (and beneficial) psychological effects of different rhythms and the like and his general metaphysical distaste for mimetic representations. But in a class this morning we came across an interesting passages in Laws II which might add another dimension. Here, it seems, the Athenian is prepared to imagine a class of works of art which are properly judged solely according to the pleasure they produce.

ΑΘ. Οὐκοῦν ἡδονῇ κρίνοιτ’ ἂν μόνον ἐκεῖνο ὀρθῶς, ὃ μήτε τινὰ ὠφελίαν μήτε ἀλήθειαν μήτε ὁμοιότητα ἀπεργαζόμενον παρέχεται, μηδ’ αὖ γε βλάβην, ἀλλ’ αὐτοῦ τούτου μόνου ἕνεκα γίγνοιτο τοῦ συμπαρεπομένου τοῖς ἄλλοις, τῆς χάριτος, ἣν δὴ κάλλιστά τις ὀνομάσαι ἂν ἡδονήν, ὅταν μηδὲν αὐτῇ τούτων ἐπακολουθῇ;

ΚΛ. Ἀβλαβῆ λέγεις ἡδονὴν μόνον.

Laws 667d-e

So pleasure would be the proper criterion in one case only. A work of art may be produced with nothing to offer by way of usefulness or truth or accuracy of representation (or harm, of course). It may be produced solely for the sake of this element that normally accompanies the others, the attractive one. (In fact, it is when this element is associated with none of the others that it most genuinely deserves the name 'pleasure'.)

You mean only harmless pleasure?

Trans. T. J. Saunders

This discussion seems to carve out a category for a possible work of art which is neither mimetic (and so is not available for evaluation in terms of its accuracy, here: quantitative and qualitative isotês) nor can serve any purpose (and so is not available for evaluation in terms of its usefulness, here: ôpheleia). The Athenian refers to them as 'play' (paidia). Items in this category we would rightly judge solely in terms of the pleasure they produce. Presumably, the more pleasure the better. This is fine, I suppose, both because this class is likely to be relatively small and also because since in these cases we have specified that there is no sense in which these objects might either mislead or otherwise do harm they are sufficiently ethically and psychologically safe that pleasure can be allowed as the proper criterion of evaluation. Importantly, it is only in these cases that pleasure should win the day -- precisely when there is no reason to worry that there are other criteria worth being concerned about -- and in cases where we can make judgements involving standards of accuracy or use these will take priority.

Now another question arises. Does the Athenian imagine that there genuinely are works of art which fall into this category? He gives no examples. If there are any examples, what would they be? Painting, music and sculpture are all cases of imitative arts, we soon discover (668aff.) Perhaps the lack of examples is simply because whatever things fit in this category we need not bother about them as lawgivers or educators. Certainly the Athenian says that they need not bother talking about them or giving any further account of them (667e-8). But if there are no examples of works in this category, then this argument is also perhaps something of a reductio. Only on these very stringent criteria would it be right to judge a work solely on its production of pleasure; but given these criteria no work would qualify. So it is never right so to evaluate works of art.

1 comment:

senn said...

Part of the problem, I think, is that Saunders mistranslates the passage you quote. I don't believe Plato is referring to works of art at all in the passage, as one may see if one looks at the Greek or at another translation (this one is Bury's):

ATH: But, speaking generally, the correctness of these things would be the result not, primarily, of pleasure, but of equality in respect of both quality and quantity.
CL: Excellent
ATH: Then we shall rightly judge by the criterion of pleasure that object only which, in its effects, produces neither utility nor truth nor similarity, nor yet harm, and which exists solely for the sake of the concomitant element of charm,--which element will best be named “pleasure” whenever it is accompanied by none of the other qualities mentioned.

This whole passage has to do, not with art, but with how a thing's - anything's - correctness is to be judged. The passage is a conclusion drawn from the examples given in 667b-d: food, learning, & works of art. But the Athenian has stopped discussing works of art in the middle of 667d (where the above quote begins), and is there making a general point about how a thing's correctness is to be judged.

In fact, the point the Athenian will later make (667e-668b) seems to be just that a work of art's correctness ought not be based on its pleasantness just because a work of art is by nature not an instance of "play" but rather (always) imitative.