The invalidity of art as a source for credible knowledge goes back to Plato’s attack on the poets in Book X of the Republic. For what good are those imaginary people who see things thrice removed from reality? Plato feared the workings of the imagination as something that deceived rather than unveiled hidden truths.
In several branches of scientific learning, in the twentieth-century, the legacy of logical positivism begun in Vienna seemed to write off all fact that did not stem from empirical knowledge. Consequently, the perspectives of academics in any field relating to art – psychology, cognitive science, education, and even the psychology of art and aesthetics, and in most cases art history – abide by the tenets of this doctrine.
The great irony is that the empirical is actually a window into the landscape of the imagination. Arthur Efland gave the example of Magritte’s La Lunette d’Approache [The Telescope] of 1963. He refuses to explain it, and also argues that it awakens intellectual inquiry. Strange thing to say about a Surrealist artist! I do not deny this, but would go further that a painting like this allows us to venture into a more subjective territory of discovery, driven by affect as well as cognitive awareness.
Take for example, Gustav Klimt’s Jurisprudence, painted for the University of Vienna, yet only displayed at the Succession and not insignificantly destroyed by the Nazis. We can see a way of making the world and also how we explain it that draws upon more in addition to the visible facts of reality.
In Klimt’s painting, Truth, Justice, and Law are a mere visage of reality, like a sexual fantasy, and surround the condemned and tortured man, who is the everyman of Vienna. They bring to mind a reality that was only described by Freud and represented by artists and musicians.
We can respond to this painting with the rich facts of our knowledge stemming from history, art, sociology, law, and academics, etc., but then also dare to delve into the mirrored space described by Pablo Tinio where we think of our memories and draw upon our associations to piece together an image of a given time in history, and also what it means to us.
By pairing together the two, what is objective and logical, with what is felt through our intuitions, we can make a two-fold discovery in art. In the end, it’s about getting beneath the visible surface that allows us to discover the deepest meaning. In order to do that, we need to be Plato’s poet.