Plato’s platitudes

Must art be political? On art and moral purity in today’s world.

Joshua Fagan

April 14, 2023

A response to The Harper Review’s spring 2023 proposition, “Art must be political.”

Dear editors,

The discourse over whether art must be political too often collapses two distinct questions into one muddled debate. 

There is the question of whether art inevitably exists in a political context, meaning a context shaped by material, social, and ideological forces. To this, the answer is, unavoidably, yes. Dante would not have written what he did had he lived centuries later, and his references to the specific internecine struggles of medieval Florence are too abundant to be ignored. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse exists inextricably in the shadow of World War I and in the growing light of twentieth-century feminism. Then there is another question: should art be judged by whether its politics align with a predetermined standard of moral goodness and purity? To this, the answer must be no.

The idea that art should cultivate virtue is not new. Quite the contrary: it is an ancient conception of art most astutely exemplified in Plato’s Republic. For Plato, art is dangerous because it appeals to the passions. It evokes sensations that transgress against rigid moral standards. As much pleasure as this morally dubious art might provide, it must be banished, lest it undermine the obedience of the populace to proper political values. Instead, says Plato, artists should be able to “discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful.” In this vision of art’s purpose, there is no place for ambiguity or even personal taste. 

Plato’s vision still lingers in contemporary complaints about whether superhero movies are innately authoritarian, or whether antihero stories are harmful in the compassion they evoke for heartless figures. What is innately limiting about this line of thinking is not the confluence of politics and art, but the misapplication of hyper-partisan political thinking to art. Challenging, nuanced art cannot be easily reduced to binaries, where the moral of the narrative either does or does not align with a particular political perspective. Judging a film like Tár based on whether it is critical enough of its protagonist is to demand an easy clarity the film has no inclination to provide.

Even if it were possible to reduce every work of art to a single political perspective, the acceptance of only art that communicates the “right” perspective would impoverish artistic discourse. Is a film like Parasite only to be enjoyed because the political issues it discusses are relevant? Should the works of Dostoevsky be shunned because they are products of a disturbing political vision? Plato would say yes. 

This view is, as Plato would readily admit, antidemocratic. It sees the populace as so simple-minded that any deviation from an absolutist set of standards is catastrophic. A democratic society should be less anxious. Art should robustly engage with political issues: the questions and yearnings innately arising from material and social conditions. It should not be expected to fill the role of partisan propaganda, piously reciting the same platitudes that already saturate the media landscape. 

With respect,

Joshua Fagan

Joshua Fagan is a fourth-year undergraduate at Columbia University studying creative writing and English.