I’ve always been proud of my (half) Greek heritage. As I was growing up I felt that it enabled me to think differently and see life through more than one lens, which I saw as something special. And it didn’t stop there.
The more tenuous connection between Greeks today and their ancient forbears didn’t stop any additional thoughts I had of laying claim to a small part of all the best of their great Classical Greek heritage. What more proof did I need than the ancient Greek words I could pick up in modern day conversation? The remaining monuments themselves, testament to that great civilisation: the Parthenon, ravaged so many times by unwelcome pillagers and yet still there! As I studied the ancient language and learnt about the civilisation I continued to make my connections from ancient to modern with a degree of satisfaction.
But that’s just my personal view. Well known to most is the legacy that the “Classical” Greek civilisation left to modern western thought and philosophy. A society that lasted at its peak for less than 200 years and yet continues to influence some of our thinking, our teachings and provided the foundation for parts of our modern western culture over two thousand years later. Whilst other cultures have certainly influenced our development what is most striking is the limited time and small scale that was “Classical Greece”.
There are other links too that are less acknowledged but equally remarkable for their sophistication so long ago. Take today’s communication through social media and the digital space it sits in?
In Classical Greece the “agora” (from the Greek “ὰγορᾱ” meaning gathering place or assembly) was the place where “citizens” including philosophers, artists, playwrights, artisans, thinkers and decision makers , met to demonstrate new skills, discuss and exchange ideas and information about the future of society. Every person in the agora was equal and “no-one subjected to another” It was an open public forum that was democratic. All it lacked was today’s technology and digital social networks. But the concept was the same – it was a “common space” that could be accessed by all citizens on an equal footing and involved the sharing of multiple common beliefs or opinions (Πολυδόξα) both commercial, political and social. Whilst the link back to Roman times, where the written word became transportable on small parchments has been documented ,for me “social” communication started in the ancient Greek agora itself and rested on the principle of open and shared communication.
Plato and Aristotle, two of the best known philosophers of the classical world, would have visited the agora regularly, standing in the shade of the colonnades espousing their views on different subjects. Their perspective on art and artists was well known and recorded [Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics].
Plato completely disagreed with his pupil Aristotle viewing art as merely “an imitation” or “mimesis” (μίμεσις) and “thrice removed from reality” that had no connection with those that possessed a real skill (tέχνη) – (like the medics, the builders and the mathematicians)
Both focused their attention on the theory of mimesis and the principle that all art was a form of it. But it was the “imitative function of art which promoted disdain in Plato and curiosity in Aristotle” [Stephen Conway 1996, Plato, Aristotle and mimesis]. For Aristotle imitation was good, how we learn, how we understand objects and how we can understand “an inner beauty” by viewing an object through art. All forms, thought Aristotle, should be subject to scrutiny and understanding – that’s how we learn.
For Plato the visible result of any human creation was “an indistinct expression of truth” (Republic X, 22), truth and knowledge being the ultimate objective in life. “Art as an imitation is irrelevant to what is real” and still worse Plato believed it could corrupt the mind of the viewer. He saw art as a threat to his ideal Republic because for him it widened the gap between “reality and appearances”.
Aristotle, however believed imitation was a creative and educational process, and that
skills required to do it well could be taught, learned and developed over time. Some art schools today teach skills in drawing as Aristotle might have imagined. How infants learn from the adults around them is through imitation.
But as I look at the art works around my house I often wonder what these philosophers might have thought of contemporary art forms? Imitation has become irrelevant in many ways. Contemporary Art is more about reaction. It can engender a feeling or a thought that may trigger a conversation. Imitation might be the seed for an abstract concept but to the viewer may offer a completely different interpretation to what the artist originally conceived. But that’s fine. We don’t seek absolute truth and knowledge like Plato. What we seek is the reaction art
creates in ourselves as we look at a work: the emotion, the appreciation, the transcendence to something outside of the ordinary. And yet embedded in our everyday lives at home as we surround ourselves with contemporary art.
Perhaps Aristotle saw that capability in human understanding. Whilst he didn’t speak much about individual artistic expression he appreciated that skill and knowledge was required and that we could learn and understand about life by looking at art.
That’s not to be dismissed.