Tag Archive: Plato

Art, Truth, and History

            I know I’ve touched on ideas of art and truth before, but it’s something I frequently find myself returning to.  I suppose as someone who’s read “The Origin of the Work of Art” three times now it’s fairly well ingrained in my mind.  This time I’ve been thinking about history paintings and truth.  History paintings were a huge source of commissions for artists for a long time.  Yet for many of the subjects being depicted the artist was not present or even alive at the time. So how can these pieces contain the truth?

            Indeed it seems almost impossible for these paintings to contain the truth.  They were created by people who weren’t even there and often commissioned by people who planned to use the piece in some way to promote their own personal and/or political agenda.  Doesn’t sound like there’s much truth there.  I think the key lies in the difference between “truthful” and “the truth.” So yes, many of these paintings are not “truthful.”  They may represent people and events that actually existed/occurred, but the scene itself is the invention of the artist’s imagination.

            But this does not mean that the painting doesn’t still contain “the truth.”  A good history painting, while perhaps not historically accurate, should still capture the spirit and essence of the time/scene/event it is representing.  And it is there in which the truth lay.  Did Washington really look like that crossing the Delaware?  Probably not.  But does the painting capture the spirit of the American Revolution?  Absolutely.  There’s an essence to that painting that captures the truth of the time.  It is not truthful, yet it still contains the truth.

            The danger arises (and I suppose I’m getting a bit Platonic here) when people take these pieces as historical fact.  The truth of the spirit gets confused for the truth of the scene/historical accuracy.  Appreciate art for capturing the truth of its time.  But don’t assume the piece is truthful.  It seems that far too few people really know/understand how much and for how long art has been used as personal and political propaganda.  Even when not intended as propaganda, as long as it’s being produced by a human being, every piece of art carries with it some kind of bias.  And it’s so important to remember that when looking at art.  Not that these biases necessarily take away from the truth the piece may contain, in fact it may even add to it.  But it can effect and possible take away from the truthfulness. 

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851, oil on canvas.

“Almost done with this painting?  I’ve got places to be!”


Art and Religion

          The other day I was watching a special on PBS called The Face: Jesus in Art.  Other than giving me flashbacks to my art history classes (which I miss dearly), it got me thinking about religion and art.  The two certainly have a long history together.  From almost the beginning art has been used to depict some sort of religious figures or rituals.  I think it started educational tools, to help tell the stories and teach the rituals to those who couldn’t read.  This causes some conflict though, since some religions forbid the creation of figural representations and/or representations of God.  Most religions seem to kind of ignore that rule though.  In Christian art there are thousands of images of Christ, and God as well.  Or perhaps I could stay Catholic art, since both the Byzantine church and Reformation brought about iconoclasms.  And yes, there are even images of the Prophet Mohammed in Islamic art.  I know, I saw them in my Islamic art class.  Islamic art is interesting because even though Islam is a religion, there are still two categories: the secular art and the religious art.  Most of the figural representations are in the secular category. 

            I don’t really see a problem with depictions of religious figures as long as people understand they’re just that – depictions, pictures.  I think the problems arise when people start worshipping the images themselves instead of what they represent.  Of course that’s at least part of the reason why religions ban the images in the first place, so that can’t happen.  I guess in a way it can even go back to Plato and his view that art can be dangerous and deceitful.  It’s tricky.

            Overall I think art is a good thing (not that I’m biased or anything, :0P).  Beauty, whether it be in art, nature or other things, can help people find the divine in their own lives, no matter their religion.  And in my opinion that has to be a good thing (as long as you don’t get too fanatical that is).  I think art is good at helping teach people about a religion, at least from a historical perspective, if not a spiritual one. 

Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1510-1535, oil on panel


Just a P.S. – I am not a theologian by any means.  Anything I know about various religions I learned either from church or school.  So if I’m horribly wrong about something in that area, feel free to correct me (in a polite manner of course).

             I’ve been thinking about Plato’s opinion that art is dangerous because it is deceptive.  My first gut reaction was, “Of course art isn’t deceptive!”  But the more I think about it, the more I can see where Plato’s coming from.  I guess the best example would be trompe l’oeil paintings, which have deception in their title essentially.  I have seen some gorgeous trompe l’oeil paintings; they’re really quite amazing.  Somehow they’re even more realistic than reality.  They certainly look more realistic than photographs, which is a very strange idea to wrap your head around.  In that case art is deceptive.  I’m still not convinced it’s dangerous though.  Although I suppose if someone did a trompe l’oeil painting of an open door or staircase on a solid wall, like Charles Willson Peale’s The Staircase Group, if it was good enough someone could smash into the wall and hurt themselves.  I know that’s not really the danger Plato had in mind though.  Maybe I’ve just been watching too much Looney Tunes. 

            Another area of art where deception comes into play is photography.  Now with computers and Photoshop it’s very easy to be deceived by photographs.  But even in its early days photography had to deal with deception.  Since it could literally capture a moment of reality many people were unaware of its ability to deceive as well.  Some early artists tried to show this.  Bayard took a self-portrait as a drowned man.  Obviously he wasn’t actually dead.  He was trying to prove that you can’t always believe what you see.

            So I guess perhaps Plato was on to something about art being deceptive.  I think the danger of it lies in the artist’s intent.  If the artist intentionally tries to deceive, esp. for dubious reasons it can be dangerous.  However if the artist’s intention is good, and does not mean to deceive than it’s not really the artist’s fault.  Overall I think Plato was a bit too harsh on art.  But I don’t think he was entirely wrong either.  And just because art has the capability to be dangerous, doesn’t mean it has no place in society. 

The Staircase Group by Charles Willson Peale, 1795


Chnages of Time by John Haberle, 1888


Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man by Bayard, 1840