WTF Is Art? An Art Appreciation Guide for Newbies

Art surrounds us, yet plenty of people inherently believe that they don’t “get” art. In this series, we give you a crash course in art appreciation to help you understand the intrinsic value—and nail your next dinner party conversation. First up: a brief history on Plato, the ultimate art critic. 

To appreciate art, one must be able to define what art is. That may be easier said than done, as the idea of what makes a work into a work of art has evolved over centuries. From Plato’s elaboration on the idea that art imitates nature in antiquity to our modern understanding of art as creative expression in nearly any and every form, art is constantly present in our everyday lives. The clothes you buy, the buildings you walk past, and the entertainment that you consume are all influenced by art, if not (all) pieces of art themselves.

Why do we create art, and more importantly, what is the value of art? This is the core question that the philosopher Plato (c. 428–c. 348 BCE) first addressed more than two millennia ago.

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican.

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican.

Plato was the original art theorist. While he had lots of opinions on really everything, Plato’s impression of art boils down to the idea that art is fundamentally based on the imitation of nature. I know what you’re thinking, “That’s nice! Like a painting of a bird, right?” Wrong. Plato did not appreciate that—at all. Plato pretty much hated art! Why? Because, in his opinion, it’s not as good as the real thing.

Plato wasn’t having any of your still life painting of a fruit bowl and flower bouquet in a breakfast nook; he would have rather had a bowl of fruit he could actually eat or flowers he could actually smell. (However, Plato didn’t seem to take into consideration that the fruit and flowers will rot and perish, while the painting goes on much longer—at least until its materials decay.)

Ultimately, Plato, as a philosopher, was in search of truth. To him, the imitation aspect of art was misleading to the mind—even dishonest. Art at the very worst puts too much emphasis on appearances. Within the realm of art, an artist could distort nature into something even more visually appealing than nature itself, which was a lie, according to Plato. (He even called paintings “dreams for those who are awake.” While it sounds like a compliment, it’s a total back-handed burn.)

Plato wanted to establish a hierarchy of the “true basis of knowledge.” He ranked the craftsman, one who works with his hands (potter, weaver, etc.), on top of the painters because his product is functional. Meanwhile, he believed the “imitative artist” (poet, actor, musician, painter, etc.) had no more value than a person holding a mirror up to the world—harsh words. Interestingly, he placed arts involving reading and writing at the top of that hierarchy, which is confusing given how much he hated poets.

So, if Plato was so unimpressed with art, why do we look to his philosophies? In Robert Williams’ expertly crafted text, Art Theory: An Historical Introduction, he postulates, “Perhaps Plato’s condemnation of art should be understood as a challenge, a call for higher, truly philosophical art…”

Whether or not that was Plato’s intent, his theorizing gave way to a vocabulary with which to talk about art. By starting the critical discussion of the value of art, he unknowingly gave birth to a whole new profession: art critic. For that, Plato, we thank you.

Stay tuned for the next installment, where we’ll discuss Plato’s view on the importance of beauty.

Share this Story