Can Art Be Harmful? Art and Image from Plato to Modernity

Art often tries to imitate reality. But what if that replication is vacuous or even harmful? Learn about the meaning of images, from Plato’s Cave to Baudrillard’s simulacra.

Feb 15, 2024By Thom Delapa, MA Cinema Studies, MA Social Sciences (U.S. cultural history)

art image plato modernity


Shakespeare’s Hamlet memorably said that drama holds the “mirror up to nature.” It’s been a classic principle of the creative arts for centuries, from painting and sculpture to photography. But what if this one-time “high art” of representation has devolved into cheap and vacuous imitation, a trend manifoldly intensified in today’s era of digitally reproduced images?


Plato vs. Aristotle on Art as Imitation

Statue of Plato by Leonidas Drosis. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Since the ancient Greek epoch of Plato and Aristotle, Western philosophers have debated the role of art in shaping and nurturing civilization. Aristotle notably extolled the dramatic and poetic arts as “imitation” (mimesis) in their ability to represent life realistically. But this imitation game must be ruled by a structure and logical unities that, in totality, work to enlighten the spectator.


Aristotle’s great teacher Plato held the opposite view, warning against such art in all its manifestations. In the Republic and his other dialogues, he claims art takes the spectator’s attention away from the divine ideal and deflects it into mere derivative copies of the lived world. Let’s try to shed light on how this cornerstone argument of aesthetics has played out, especially in view of the powerful, virtually limitless technologies of modern reproduction that developed since the advent of photography.


Plato’s Cave-Men

Illustration of of the allegory of the cave. Source: Wikimedia Commons


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While Aristotle did not devote much thought to the aesthetics of visual images, Plato did, at least in terms of his conclusions primarily presented in his renowned “Allegory of the Cave.”


In the guise of his own legendary teacher Socrates, Plato tells his pupils to imagine a cave where lifelong prisoners are sitting on the ground chained and immobile and can only see straight ahead to a wall in front of them. On this wall, flickering images are projected, and they appear “real” to the prisoners. What they don’t know is that these moving figures are not real at all but are simply shadows, both literally and figuratively. But where do these shadows come from? Behind and above the prisoners is a line of people holding up puppets while walking across a bridge-like structure, even making animating sounds. Now, behind them is a fire that casts its light toward those puppets, causing their shadows to fall on—if you will—the “screen” the prisoners are gazing at.


What if a prisoner could make a great escape to the outside world? After climbing up a dark tunnel, he or she would emerge into earthly sunshine, so brilliant it would temporarily blind them. There they’d see real beings and objects, not just their ephemeral shadows. This is the world of truth, freedom, and knowledge befitting Plato’s philosopher-king.


It is a lonely ascent from ignorance, imprisonment, and self-deception into wisdom. Shouldn’t such enlightenment be shared with others? This enlightened person may wish to return to the cave and tell the other prisoners about the bright authentic world above. For Plato, common humanity being what it is, such servile underground men are not only satisfied with their inert, myopic lives, they might just kill “the messenger” out of spite.


Plato, the Elitist Idealist: Why Images are Inferior

Plato’s cognition line from good to bad, via Michael Mullen


No (small d) democrat, Plato would go on to cast a cold eye on the virtues of popular rule and, undoubtedly, popular art. He goes further in his critique by constructing a hierarchy of cognition and intellect.


Plato theorizes a horizontal line that separates the visible world from what he calls the intelligible (see diagram above). Then bisecting that line, he plots four stages of cognition from highest to lowest in wisdom. The lowest is the simple realm of the image, essentially what fascinated (and fooled) the cave prisoners.


The categories above are visible things that have substance, examination of which leads to basic knowledge and beliefs. Across the divide into higher wisdom, the next stage is reason, primarily gained through mathematical and scientific inquiry.


At the top of the ladder is true intelligence, that is, knowledge of the Good (large G), what Plato calls the “forms.” These are the big, abstract, elusive ideals in civil society—Justice, Virtue, Honesty, Beauty, Truth, even God; they aren’t part of the lowly “visible” world of mere perception, though they can and should be manifest in it.


Vincent Van Gogh’s useless bed. Source: the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Plato provides another hierarchy of sorts to elaborate on his suspicion of art and the image. Take an object like a bed—or perhaps something complex, like an airplane. One can conceive of a “bed” in the abstract in terms of its archetypal function and look, not on any specific size, shape, or style. This is the pure, eternal form of the bed, and for Plato this concept necessarily precedes any specific constructed bed. As you might expect, an actual bed is the next-highest manifestation of what a “bed” is.


And what constitutes the last type of bed in this Platonic pecking order? Extrapolating on his analogy, those dubious kudos would go to a painting or drawing or of a bed. Why? First of all, you can’t sleep on a bed in a painting, so it’s not fulfilling the function meant for it. Second, an artist may draw a nice-looking and realistic bed, but he/she would have no idea how to actually build that bed, again thwarting the signature purpose of a bed and rendering the artist fairly useless. Third (this is where Plato gets really strict), looking at art is a sensuous temptation, appealing to emotion, not reason.


The Damage Images Can Do: The Case of Cop Shows

Shadows on the walls? Source: Reddit


Now this argument may sound absurd or uber-puritanical, but in fact, Plato’s criticisms can be extrapolated into popular film and TV. For one of the innumerable examples, U.S. entertainment media have long been loaded with police shows. They invariably dramatize cunning crimes and compelling investigations and feature smart, tough, and heroic cops in programs that appear realistic and convincing, reflecting the world. Yet how accurate and truthful are they, really? And if they aren’t, why do so many people watch them?


Talk to an actual policeman (or policewoman) or read their accounts, and you’ll discover that most day-to-day police work is rather routine and uneventful, comprising a lot of paperwork (now via computer). In most municipalities, cops rarely are forced to use their firearms, and if they should happen to shoot someone fatally, it commonly weighs on their conscience for the rest of their lives.


Lobby card for the American drama film Police Call (1933). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


But what do viewers of police dramas get? More often than not, it’s the Dirty Harry myth, where a trigger-happy, dead-shot macho hero casually guns down bad guys to save the day. In other words, for Plato, these shows are like the shadows on the cave wall that pass for the real, distracting and duping us. He might ask us, as citizens, why not get off the couch and instead spend time contemplating and making possible good police work and a just society?


At the other extreme, how many police shows would dare to have their brainy or brawny armed-to-the-teeth heroes standing around at a grammar school for over an hour while a teenage psychopath shoots and kills several dozen innocent kids and teachers inside? This, of course, is what horrifically did happen last year in Texas, not inside a cave, but out in the light of day, where harsh (if not blinding) truths are readily visible for those with the courage to look.


Walter Benjamin on Art in the Age of Photography

Giotto’s Madonna and Child, early 14th century. Source: the National Gallery of Art


In recent decades, film and visual studies scholars have explored the metaphor of Plato’s cave for contemporary critiques of mass-mediated images. You can guess why, bearing in mind previous allusions to the “screen” on which the shadows flicker. It’s no stretch of the imagination to see the cave as a prophetic, even eerie, rhetorical ancestor of the cinema.


Instead of a fire illuminating the puppets that cast shadows on the wall, in a traditional “film” screening, a bright lamp inside a projector shines through a rapidly moving reel of semi-transparent still photographs, thus producing the impression of “moving pictures.” In the digital era, that filmstrip has largely been replaced by liquid crystal displays (LCD) or digital micro-mirror devices (DMD) projecting those same moving images from a hard drive.


Newer cultural critiques have been pointed and numerous, particularly since the 1970s with the advent of what many observers have termed the “postmodern” era of Western capitalist society. But there were key predecessors, such as the 1930s German Frankfurt School, which offered an influential post-Marxist condemnation of Western consumerism—chiefly American—in an age of mass-produced, monetized images.


From that group, Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” has become a classic in the field. Unlike Plato, Benjamin does assign a high place to art in society, but only for what he calls its “cult” value. The values imbued in such objects are exquisitely tied to their time and place, history, and importance to the person or group to which they belong.


Madonna (without child). Source: IMDb.


For example, a painting of a Madonna with infant adorning a medieval church, or perhaps the monumental (if fire-scarred) Parisian cathedral, Notre Dame, have this kind of cult-value. Given their hand-made creation as unique objects cast with religious or spiritual qualities, with each possessing its own “aura,” one can hardly say they are reproducible at all, except as counterfeit items. If one such painting was reproduced (say for sale as a postcard in a museum gift shop), you would have a copy of sorts, but only a simulated or degraded one.


In the modern world, where images are not only instantly reproducible but bought and sold, Benjamin argues that cult value has been crassly replaced by exchange value—that is, money.


Think, for instance, of the world’s paparazzi that hunt down and hound celebrities for photographs of them to sell to the tabloid press and TV. While photos of loved ones can be precious keepsakes for their owners, the images the paparazzi chased that led to Princess Diana’s fatal 1997 automobile crash were to be displayed or broadcast to strangers with no personal connection to her except in a remote, voyeuristic sense.


Deleuze, Plato, and the Simulacrum

The Las Vegas Eiffel Tower (as image and simulacrum). Source: Destination 360


For a variation on Benjamin’s analysis, take the architectural example of the Las Vegas Eiffel Tower, a half-size replica of the iconic 1889 Paris landmark. In the ancient city of Paris, “la Tour” is inexorably anchored in the 7th Arrondissement next to the Seine within the broad Champ de Mars gardens. Tourists visiting la Tour cannot help but be immersed in its existence as a historic structure, epic engineering feat, and romantic symbol of Paris itself.


The “Las Vegas Eiffel,” however built as an homage, carries with it none of the historic or contextual remnants of the original; while it does have an observation deck like its model, the structure’s looming purpose is as an amusement to lure gamblers into its vast ground-floor casino (which also has a “Paris street scene.”). In other words, the Vegas Eiffel amounts to a copy of sorts, but only imbued with superficial and degraded qualities of the original, devoid of what makes the Eiffel Tower the beloved Tour Eiffel.


The Eiffel Tower (as image), via Travel Earth


This notion of the “degraded” copy has sometimes been described as the simulacrum, a term coincidentally made popular in academia by French intellectuals such as Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze.


Indeed Deleuze’s “Plato and the Simulacrum” essay (1966) lays out how in his view Platonism vis-à-vis the good image has been negated in modernity and replaced by the false one. For if Americans can partake in an Eiffel Tower that avoids the foreign realities of Paris (whether its native street life, traffic, prices, language—or Parisians themselves), and can be conveniently “visited” as part of a carefree gambling weekend, how nice is that?


There is much more to say about the dilemma of the simulacrum, but for now, one can ponder how readily the image has taken preeminence over the real in today’s mass-mediated culture. Not simply how Plato’s cave is analogous to the experience of cinema, but even more literally its remodel and makeover into today’s home theater, the so-called “man cave”!

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By Thom DelapaMA Cinema Studies, MA Social Sciences (U.S. cultural history)Thom is a film/media studies educator, film critic, and part-time playwright based in Ann Arbor, MI, USA, where he has taught at the University of Michigan and the College for Creative Studies (Detroit). He holds an MA in Cinema Studies from New York University-Tisch School of the Arts and an MA in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. He has developed and taught film courses at other leading U.S. institutions, including the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Denver. He has written on film for Cineaste magazine, the Chicago Tribune, AlterNet, and the Conversation, et al. He awaits the end of the Internet (as we know it) with optimism.