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Plato on Art and Society: Towards a unified aesthetic theory

Internationalisation Fellowships


The project rethinks Plato's view on art and literature. It does so by focusing on the role of ideal art and utopianism in the Republic, an aspect of Plato's work that has been largely overlooked by scholars. Traditionally, scholars hav focused on a different aspect of Plato's view of art, namely his harsh critique of some forms of poetry and painting. I argue that Plato's views on idealism and utopianism form a counterpart to his well-known critical views, and that the idealism and criticism together form a coherent theory of art. On this basis, I am able to integrate Plato's thinking about art more firmly in his general philosophy.


While most art theory the last three centuries has stressed artistic freedom and the disinterested character of aesthetic appreciation, i.e., art as non- or anti-political, Plato claims that art is always political. He links his critique of art closely to democracy, because, he says, the rule of the majority will make both artists and politicians aim to simply please their audience. Free art turns out to be the opposite: a slave of the taste of the audience. Plato is thus a useful voice in current debate about the arts and their place in society, because he points to the challenges of an entirely 'democratic' artistic environment and the need for art to offer a different view of reality and the threat that democracy can pose to this function of art.


The research itself is divided into parts that each deal with central aspects of Plato's theory of art. One piece (on utopianism) is under publication, and a second article on Plato's view on the psychology of art is soon ready for submission. A final academic piece on the concept of fiction in Plato's dialogues is in preparation. My research is conducted individually, but I have the support of a very strong institutional structure. I am based at the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge, and at Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge, where I collaborate with world-leading experts in my field, both by presenting and discussing my own research and by participating in work-shops and research seminars.


It is part of my aim to show that Plato's ideas on art are highly relevant to modern debates about the function of art in society and individual life. Because the project directly addresses the value of arts in human life and society, it also contributes to a larger debate about the place and value of the humanities. Rethinking Plato's view of art will provide new insight into the role of art in creating and maintaining ideas and values in all societies. In particular, by going back to the roots of art theory in Plato, we find a view of art as more closely related to and integrated in political and ethical problems than most modern theories would admit. In this way, Plato provides us with alternatives and new perspectives on problems that are highly relevant to our own time.