Western civilization’s long history of anxiety surrounding the power and significance of representation in the arts is first examined at length in Book X of Plato’s Republic. Plato’s estimation of the corrupting influence of “imitative art” has prejudiced Western philosophy throughout its history and into the 20th century, notably in the conception of the Avant-Garde and its offspring. Though the importance of the avant-garde has faded somewhat in contemporary schools of thought, Western academic discomfort with representation remains relevant to secular and religious discourse in the 21st century as evidenced by the Charlie Hebdo catastrophe as well as the mistrust of the art object in Relational Esthetics and Social Practice theory. Understanding of the ideas expressed in The Republic is therefore required to fully understand Plato’s influence on the contemporary art world.
Though separated by millennia from Plato’s writing, similar concerns are expressed in Clement Greenberg’s essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch.” Greenberg’s essay, with its in-depth exploration of the concepts behind the title’s eponymous terms, was an important contribution to this theoretical debate, in particular as it related to “Kitsch”. Greenberg never makes direct reference to Plato, though it would seem that such a reference would help his case. Instead, he refers to the Aristotelian conception of imitation, rather than that of Plato, in his justification of the Avant-Garde. The reasons for Greenberg’s desire to elevate the avant-garde artist are self-evident in his resistance to Stalinist and Nazi esthetics, but the question is then begged; why would Greenberg take such apparent pains to eschew Plato when it seems that the Republic would be such a natural point of reference for his claims? The answer lies in the fact that, aside from his claims about art, the Platonic ideal state espoused in The Republic was essentially proto-fascist. The acetic desire for transcendence without emotion continues to influence the art theoretical discourse as it has for decades, if not millennia, and it shows no sign of stopping. It remains to be seen whether contemporary theories of art will hold up decades from now, but it is safe to assume that Plato’s conception of the painter will have made some contribution, however subtle, to whatever theoretical framework emerges next.
Chris Vena is a painter, photographer, videographer, and writer with an exhibition record spanning 22 years, 6 states and 3 countries. His work is concerned with the personal experience of those engaged in political struggle. He received a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2003 and a MFA from Arizona State University 2017, having studied painting and drawing at The École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, France on exchange in 2001. He has taught at NAU, ASU and various community colleges in the Maricopa Valley since 2014. He currently resides in Tempe, Arizona.