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A very recent ‘Symposium’ in Fine Art

Our MA in Fine Art has been obliged to resort entirely to communications through the often uncomfortable processes of Zoom. I haven’t actually been in the presence of most of my fellow students (in person) for almost a year. It has been a very difficult time but it became even more difficult when I had the task of opening a recent symposium with a 30 minute presentation on my ‘research’ into a self-chosen domain or subject within the broad category that is ‘contemporary’ or ‘advanced’ Fine Art. In fact, I knew my subject well since I had been focusing upon it in terms of both theory and practice since the beginning of June 2020. For various reasons I had investigated a sub-category of Conceptual art and I had even had the temerity to propose a distinct and as yet unnamed sub-category – which I called ‘psycho-philosophical’.

During January 2021 I had duly prepared my presentation and had wondered about the wisdom of referring to it as a ‘theory-led’ project. (I anticipated an audience that would not necessarily wish to dwell too much on ‘theory’.) But, as I rehearsed it – a process rendered bizarre and alienating because it consisted of me having to speak emphatically and with no little animation to an inanimate computer screen – I suddenly wondered if the forthcoming audience would be familiar with the very origins of the ‘thing’ that is a ‘symposium.’ On top of this I had more or less forgotten the text of the early forerunner of the modern symposium: and that text is Plato’s ‘The Symposium‘. It occurred to me that a good way of concluding my presentation would be a ‘return to the beginning’ by way of reminding ourselves of what a good symposium might achieve. So, I reached up to a particular book-shelf – a book-shelf that contains some classic works of literature – found what I was looking for – and re-read Plato’s ‘The Symposium‘.

It’s a great work of art. It’s a great read too. In a nutshell, Plato describes a dinner party (or rather a drinking party) convened to celebrate the recent success of the playwright Agathon. The party is attended by the elite literati of Athens; and, instead of enjoying an after-dinner entertainment of music and carousing, the guests decide to hear, from each of the participants, a discourse on love.

However, despite thoroughly enjoying the text and of being taught how to think clearly about ‘love’ this re-reading yielded an unexpected result; and, the unexpected result of re-reading the whole of Plato’s ‘Symposium‘ was the realisation that the work could be understood as an expression of the very sub-category of art, a ‘psycho-philosophical ‘art, that I was proposing I had so recently ‘discovered’! It would have been impossible for me to arrive at this way of looking at Plato’s achievement if I had not benefited from studies in the ‘philosophy of art’ and notably Goldie and Schellekens’ (2009) collection of papers in their ‘The philosophy of conceptual art‘. This is because the contributors such as Lamarque (2009) determined that the identity conditions of conceptual art (i.e the conditions that need to be met for something to claim the identity of conceptual art) are:

That, experientially, it is a kind of hybrid which has parallels with:

a) the cerebral reflections that overlap with the philosophical

b) thematic concerns – similar to those which give a work of literature or music coherence – and

c) the perceptual and often sensual experiences yielded by painting and sculpture or music and dance

And Plato’s ‘Symposium’ reflects these conditions, How so? Well, it has a mise en scene which, in its description creates a distinct and fascinating ‘situation’ (this is the vivid sensory aspect), it reproduces discourses on the theme of love (i.e. it has a coherent thematic content) and in the course of doing this it introduces, through the reported conversation between Diotima and Socrates, Plato’s philosophy and his theory of the Forms. It provokes really serious philosophical reflection. And, it includes allusions to the character of the participants such as Aristophanes and Alcibiades. However, its core focus, in this respect, is on the person – the character and psychology of Socrates. It is a remarkable text and it also suggests a certain philosophy of art – if in place of the subject of ‘love’ we introduce the ‘realities’ of art. In so doing it raises the question about gradations of art – from the rather basic representations of the aesthetic to an art that enables the viewer to transcend the limits of the sensible world.

I should also note that after the speeches of Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristohanes and Agathon, Socrates perhaps surprises us by first clarifying the concept of love and then referring to the person who taught him how to think about it: And she was the woman Diotima. It would be a mistake to underestimate the power and insights of women even in such distant times.