Plato’s dialogues on art are the oldest surviving discussions that we know about in the Western world, which have continued to influence significantly our discussions about art. In fact, Plato would influence Neoplatonism during the medieval era. The Neo-Platonist Plotinus focused on Plato’s theory of art imitating Beauty and eternal Truth.
Techne is a broad term Plato uses, which includes music, painting, mathematics, medicine, and other skilled disciplines. Therefore, techne or art is not always connected with aesthetics.
The term mimesis has been known to mean “imitation” or “representation.” Yet Plato uses this term in different ways. First, in Books II–III of Republic, mimesis occurs when someone represents a character by acting onstage. Second, in Book X, the artistic act of producing images (whether of things or people) is mimetic (Cooper 4).
This world, continually changing, and its physical things (e.g., art, music, nature, and geometry) are all imperfect copies. Plato’s Forms or Ideals include Beauty, Justice, and the Circle, and these Forms are perfect as well as more real than objects here on Earth. While the world of Forms is rational and constant, the world of the physical is changeable and only imitates the Forms.
In Republic, Plato argues that art is a copy of a copy because (first) art imitates the physical, which (second) imitates the Forms. However, in Symposium, Plato argues that the artist can be inspired and reveal the Ideal essences. For example, in Greek art, the late classical sculptures represent the gods with ideal bodies with perfect proportions, thus presenting the Ideal existing in the imperfect world.
Plato reasons that the free exchange of ideas would result in Truth. Yet, he believes that the arts function through images instead of ideas. This is problematic because art could distort—rather than clarify—the Truth.
Book VII of Plato’s Republic presents “The Allegory/Myth of the Cave.” Readers are asked to imagine prisoners chained and facing a wall inside a cave. Because of another wall, a fire, and puppets on sticks, the prisoners can only see shadows, but they think these shadows are Reality. If the prisoners were released, they would learn that (first) the shadows are copies of the puppets and (second) after going outside, the real objects were represented by the puppets.
Art imitates objects and ordinary events. The power of art occurs because of its ability to influence emotions and behavior as well as to lead us away from truth towards illusion. Art is powerful and, therefore, dangerous. In Plato’s ideal republic, art should be used for education and should be censored.