by Lowell Warren
This semester I’m taking an art class called Contemporary Theory & Practice, which looks at social and cultural theory through the lens of producers and consumers in contemporary society. Each week we have a series of texts to read and analyze and then we come together as a class and discuss how these ideas relate to us as artists.
A few weeks ago we read about Plato’s theory of Forms. Plato believed that the physical world is not as “real” or “true” as the world of ideas. While objects that exist in the physical world are impermanent and ever-changing (organisms die, wood rots, artifacts disintegrate), abstract concepts are absolute, unchangeable, and timeless. Consider largeness. In the physical world, largeness is relative. An elephant is large, but compared to a mountain an elephant is small. However, the Form of largeness (the definition, the idea, the concept) is unchanging and eternal, making it more real. He believed that humans are meant to look to the Forms for guidance. A carpenter, for example, may look to the Form of a table to try and build his own table. The physical table will never achieve the perfection of the Form–it’s impossible!–but the closer the carpenter comes to the idea of a perfect table, the better and more functional the table will be.
Another important note about Plato is that he had a complicated relationship to the arts. He understood the power that art possessed to spread ideas and alter people’s ways of thinking, and he feared that this would do more harm than good. If Plato believed that everything in the physical world is a copy of a Form, then art, an imitation of life, is a copy of a copy. Therefore, art encourages people to stray further from the Form and further from the truth and realness that we should be striving for.
Before class, our professor asked us to bring in a representation of an apple. We brought in a pencil drawing of an apple, the word apple written on a piece of paper, the dictionary definition of an apple, a stuffed apple, digital photos of apples on a laptop, a small apple-sized canvas painted completely red, a bag of green apple Jolly Ranchers, a plastic apple, a clay apple, and of course apple the fruit.
The goal: to determine as a class which apples Plato would consider dangerous to society and which apples Plato would support as forms of art that bring us closer to the Form.
First, we decided that the green apple Jolly Ranchers were the most dangerous. Some parents might believe Jolly Ranchers are healthier than other candy because they’re “fruity”–my professor calls these types of people “DEEP in the cave.” They feed their children candy because they’re led to believe green apple Jolly Ranchers contain apple, which is the farthest thing from the truth.
Next, we determined that the digital photos of apples were dangerous because they’ve been photoshopped and edited to look sexier than they are. The drawing of an apple, while it is also a picture of an apple, does not deceive you because it is clear that it is only a drawing. The glossy, manufactured photos of apples are meant to look more real than the real. They deceive the viewer with their artificial perfection and manipulate the viewer into buying the apple. Therefore, they are dangerous.
Someone argued that the edible apple was deceitful in the same way. It was genetically modified and injected with chemicals to achieve the appearance of a perfect apple when in fact it does not represent the true apple. But we weren’t about to give up the apple that easily. I mean, of course the edible apple is the closest to the true Form of apple, right?!
Eventually, we tossed out the plastic apple. While we didn’t consider it dangerous, it still only mimicked the Form, and Plato did not support imitation. For the same reason, we rejected the clay apple, the stuffed apple, and the drawing of an apple, all of which were mimicry. That left us with the edible apple, the small red canvas, the word apple, the poem about the apple, and the dictionary definition of apple.
This is when the discussion got heated. Team Poem argued that the poem illustrated the experience of eating an apple–the juicy taste, the crisp aroma, the firm crunch. Others argued that the edible apple was closest to the Form because what is an apple without its physical sensations–it’s physical taste, appearance, smell, and texture? Classmates who supported the dictionary definition fought back by saying that Plato didn’t care about physicality or sensory emotions; the Form of an apple was the idea, and the edible apple couldn’t represent the idea of the apple the way the solid dictionary definition could, or the way the poem could.
After an hour of debate, I think each of us thought we were about to explode. We all believed we understood the purest representation of the apple but we couldn’t come to an agreement. Eventually, we decided to tear up the piece of paper with the word apple. It was just a word, a meaningless sign which doesn’t draw us any closer to understanding the Form. Then we crumpled up the dictionary definition.
That left us with the edible apple, the poem, and the small red canvas. After a lengthy debate, we decided that while the poem depicted the experience of eating an apple, the experience was too singular. Similarly, the edible apple was too individual. It had a specific color, shape, and taste that was specific to that one apple. It didn’t represent crab apples, or yellow apples, or any other type of apple. Does a single apple bring us any closer to understanding the Form of an apple? No! It tells you what an apple should be.
To our horror, the small red canvas won. Nobody predicted it, but the more we considered it the more it made sense. The red canvas doesn’t capture the physicality of the apple, but it holds the essence of an apple. If you walk into a museum and see a painting of an apple, you think, Cool, this is an apple. If you read a poem about an apple, you think, Cool, this must be what it’s like to eat an apple. But when you walk into a museum and see a red square on the wall titled Apple, then you’re invited to pause and reflect on the apple as a Form. You’re welcome to question what an apple is, to consider the Form, and hopefully, through your own consideration of the Form, be brought closer to it. The red canvas doesn’t try to prove what an apple is, but persuades you to imagine what an apple is. And according to Plato, that’s what good art does. It persuades, not proves.
Of course, Plato couldn’t care less about the Form of an apple. Instead, he wanted us to be guided closer to Forms of goodness, justice, and equality. Concepts like goodness are hard to define because they vary between cultures, but Plato believed that there was such a thing as an objective good, and if we lived our lives with the idea of Forms in mind, we could come closer and closer to achieving moral and societal perfection.