Course: Philosophy and the Arts
Prof. Eli Friedlander
The relation of art and society according to Plato, Rousseau and Benjamin
The relation between art and society is very complex and might be seen from the various perspectives. The main concern, however, has always been the one of the function of arts within the society – that is to say, what people need the arts for. Of course, this theme was challenged by many philosophers of different ages, who tried to criticize or to praise arts as something that, consequently, corrupts our minds or sets them free and brings pleasure. Plato has written his book The Republic, where Socrates and other philosophers tried to as well construct the concept of an ideal state, just city, or ideal society, where there would be three main classes of people, and where art, for some reasons that I will discuss, has no place. Jean-Jacques Rousseau has developed a similar conception in his Social Contract theory, where he described the society, in which individuals should all be set in their right place, so to speak; whereas, in his texts like, for instance, The letter to D'Alembert on the Theater, Rousseau argues that the artificial arts such as theatre, for example, should be replaced by the more natural entertainments like festivals or sports, where even the spectators could engage. Walter Benjamin as well addresses the arts and their function in the modern society, however, Benjamin stresses already the other side of this relation. His main concern is that people in the modern society have impoverished in terms of culture, because they do not appreciate the history, they do not appreciate the experience that is given to them by the previous generations, they do not appreciate the authenticity of the works of art, and therefore, the value of arts decreases. He insists that in order for the society to exist in harmony, people need to evaluate history; they need to appreciate culture and the arts instead of making them superficial or even barbarian kind of amusement.
Plato's Republic is a very well-known book, which includes a set of dialogues between such philosophers as Socrates, Glaucon and others, who discussed such matters as, for example, the concept of justice. This book is known as a text on the political theory, because Socrates presents the example of the ideal state. The conception of the ideal state that he constructs includes three classes of people: philosophers, soldiers and producers. Each class is meant to have its own function. Socrates proves that philosophers must rule the city, because they are the only one, who can achieve the truth, and therefore the only ones, who can teach people or protect them – "you are better and more completely educated than the others, and better able to share in both types of life…you have seen the truth about fine, just, and good things" (you refers to philosophers); soldiers' only function is to protect the city from the enemies in cases of intrusion, and producers are meant to grow food and keep the city. Socrates as well argues that poets or artists should leave the city, unless they will prove that their art is somehow useful for the society – "if the imitative poetry that aims at pleasure has any argument to show it should have place in a well-governed city, we would gladly welcome it back". Of course, this conception is hypothetical and is described by Socrates with use of different allegories and metaphors, as is the parable of the cave. There is also a tension between Socrates, a philosopher, who sees art as something that is "three steps from the truth" and therefore is useless for the society; and Plato, not only a philosopher, but also an artist, a writer, whose point of view on the arts is not as critical. And so, we are not allowed to forget the fact that Republic was written by Plato and it is hard for us to distinguish...
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