The Greeks and the Arts

Aesthetics was first established as a philosophical discipline around the eighteenth century, thanks to the writings of Alexander Baumgarten. Despite their recent appearance in the scenario of Western culture, questions about perception, beauty, and art have a long history dating back to ancient Greece. To some extent, we might say that philosophy originally aimed at providing a systematic view of the world and the phenomena in it. Given the centrality of literature and the visual arts in Greek culture, some of the greatest intellectuals of the time felt compelled to give their opinion on the matter, creating a rich corpus of writings about art and literature.

Sappho and Alcaeus – Lawrence Alma-Tadema – 1881 – oil on canvas

Long before Plato and Aristotle, Greek thinkers and writers expressed their considerations about the role of the artist, the divine nature of inspiration, the forms of beauty. The poetess Sappho, who lived between the seventh and the sixth century BC, wrote these famous lines (fr. 16):

Some say
The most beautiful thing
Over the coal-black earth,
Is an army arrayed
With horses and armour.

I say
The most beautiful thing
Over the coal-black earth,
Is whatever you love
And desire the most.

Sappho’s words are the primitive formulation of an aesthetic thought. The feelings and the subjectivity of the author become criteria of appreciation through which she looks at the world. On the other hand, this small fragment can be interpreted as a literary declaration, where the poetess praises subjective love poetry over the traditional epic models. Long before Baumgarten, aesthetics manifests itself through the critical looks of artists and connoisseurs.

Expectations – Lawrence Alma-Tadema – 1885 – oil on canvas

As philosophy developed, great figures such as Plato and his pupil Aristotle took interest in the relation between men and the arts. Plato lived in a period of great social and political instability: he witnessed Athen’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War; he lived under the rule of the Thirty Tyrants; he saw the execution of his own master, Socrates. Uncertainty and instability characterise Athens throughout the first part of Plato’s life and this may have influenced his intellectual development. His view of the world is based on universal and fixed principles, the ideas, which are hidden to our senses. They reside in the World of Forms, of which material reality is a flawed copy. In this perspective, Plato dismisses art as a futile illusion, because it appeals to the senses and hinders men’s reason by provoking unnecessary emotions.

The Roses of Heliogabalus – Lawrence Alma-Tadema – 1888 – oil on canvas

Plato certainly had a developed aesthetic sense. Although our knowledge of his early years is limited, some suppose he even might have been a tragedy writer. Georges Gruber suggests that Plato was painfully conscious of the value of beauty but he could not trust the arts as the medium for this powerful force. As the philosopher writes in the Ion, there is hardly any rationality in art: it is inspired by the gods, that is to say, by some uncontrollable force beyond human rationality. What is art then? It is an illusion and the artist a trickster, whose works can distract the wise men and impair their ethical behaviour.

In a Rose Garden – Lawrence Alma-Tadema – 1890 – oil on canvas

Aristotle developed a far more moderate view, creating a space for art in his own anthropological system. Men, he claims, are naturally inclined to imitation. They learn through imitation, they follow and create tradition through imitation, they discover the world through their senses and replicate its many patterns. Aristotle sees art as a natural phenomenon, which allows men to learn about the underlying universal principles which regulate reality. He also describes the therapeutic power of art, embodied by the concept of catharsis (“purification”). Indeed, in front of the artwork one can re-elaborate the emotions and set them in context within the safe space of a staged performance.

Listening to Homer – Lawrence Alma-Tadema – 1885 – oil on canvas

It is possible to argue abundantly about the differences and similarities of Plato and Aristotle. Certainly, their thoughts have considerably influenced the history of Western aesthetics. St Augustine, for example, employed Platonian arguments to dismiss the value of sensorial stimuli, while St Thomas Aquinas embraced an Aristotelian perspective to defend the arts. Immanuel Kant, many more centuries later, studied Aristotle’s Poetics like generations of intellectuals before him. The Greek thought represents a cornerstone of the European culture. Despite its many flaws, clear faults, tedious contradictions, it still offers a notable insight into the basic questions with which any scholar has to come to terms even nowadays.


Featured Image

Sappho and Alcaeus


The Roses of Heliogabalus

In a Rose Garden

Listening to Homer

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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