The accounts of philosopher’s Plato, Aristotle, Tolstoy and Collingwood on the central elements of art all relate to emotion. The varied claims that these philosophers hold on art imply both positive and negative implications. In this essay I seek to explicate these philosopher’s theories of art and emotion by applying their attitudes to a work of art. The piece of art I will apply to said theories is rock artist Todd Rundgren’s 1974 song, A Dream Goes on Forever. I will begin the essay by evaluating how Plato would approach the song, I will then analyze each philosopher’s view before briefly concluding.
Plato would likely regard A Dream Goes on Forever as as much of a valid form of art as the non-worship based poetry written of in The Republic, such as Homer’s. Although different in face value, Rundgren’s song holds various similarities to Plato’s descriptions of poetry. The principle definition of poetry (and principle reason for its disapproval in the ideal city) by Plato is its nature belonging in mimesis. Plato would likely state the same reason that Homer cannot offer valuable knowledge through mimesis for Todd Rundgren. In A Dream Goes on Forever the aesthetic feeling of dreamful, enduring love cannot produce valuable knowledge on real love for Plato as Rundgren’s conveyance exists as a lesser copy of the real feeling, which itself is a lesser copy of a higher form.
Furthemore, Plato, although recognizing it as art, would likely disapprove of the presence of A Dream Goes on Forever in the ideal city as the effective quality of mimesis that makes it art, relies on a strong appeal to emotion. In this sense, Plato would look down on the song as he would see its love-blinded emotional content as mimesis of a character who acts on emotional excess rather than rational control or thumos. Plato would fear that A Dream Goes on Forever would provide more corruption of souls, straying from reason, while not providing enough benefit to reflect a balance.
Plato’s description of art consisting of mimesis in nature is something that has appeared to stay consistent among many philosophers after. This attribute of Plato’s arguments holds validity in encompassing the outlines of what art is to be considered. What becomes clear from this understanding however, is the notion that Plato may be correct on art principally featuring mimicry, yet incorrect on further mimicry alluding to further ingenuity. Furthermore, following Plato’s notion in his theory of forms that knowledge only comes from the forms, songs would provide nothing physically new nor be able to inform the forms, and thus would not produce valuable knowledge. However, songs such as A Dream Goes on Forever have a vague narrative structure, allowing them to not serve as an individual copy but rather a backdrop of understanding – this attribute makes Plato’s argument against art as a result of it’s mimicking nature less persuasive.
While maintaining a somewhat similar worldview to Plato’s, Aristotle conversely defends art as serving both remote and immediate value. At the root of Aristotle’s appreciation for art was the notion that a certain understanding of the nature of reality could be obtained from the experience of interacting with art. Within this, it is likely that Aristotle would additionally say that A Dream Goes on Forever is an imitation, but an imitation of very real, serious events or feelings, a recreation that allows for a catharsis of the contained emotion. The important aspect of A Dream Goes on Forever for Aristotle would be the value that it serves in allowing people to learn about the serious human emotions present in the song. Vicariously, people are able to experience intense emotions without having to undertake intense or extreme actions.
This is additionally an aspect that troubles Plato’s argument as Plato fears people listening to A Dream Goes on Forever becoming more angered over their heartbreak, and committing a heinous action to act on said emotion. Conversely, Aristotle imagines people listening to A Dream Goes on Forever and successfully processing the feelings of their heartbreak as they feel them through the song. This attribute makes Aristotle’s argument seem more plausible as Plato’s argument seems to be requiring repressing or removing emotional faculty.
Leo Tolstoy’s theories on art offer a unique distinguishing point of description – the infectious quality of art. If Tolstoy were to hear A Dream Goes on Forever I think he would be much quicker to identify its value than Aristotle or Plato. The infectious quality of art that Tolstoy believed in is largely reflected by Pop/Rock songs such as Rundgren’s. Tolstoy believed in art principally conveying lived-through experience of feeling. Songs such as A Dream Goes on Forever become great reflections of Tolstoy’s description of art as their orchestrated simplicity is effective at reaching almost everyone. Tolstoy would have an appreciation for the song as art as its mainstream success reflects the joyful, spiritual union that he prescribed to art.
Furthemore, beyond recognizing Rundgren’s song as valid, and possibly valuable art, Tolstoy would likely recognize it as good art. The reasoning for this is in Tolstoy’s expectations for good art that are present within either the lyrical or musical content of Rundgren’s song. There is a high degree of infectiousness, a strong feeling of individuality that is not muddled, and importantly, the conveyed emotion is of high quality and the utmost sincerity, appearing to be of genuine cause.
Todd Rungren’s song additionally serves value by the means of its creation, an attribute closely examined by Collingwood. The pronounced distinction between a craft having been preconceived and involving conscious control and art involving consciousness of an emotion’s presence but not of the emotion is of large importance to Collingwood. In the contexts of songwriting, it is one thing to identify a heartfelt, seemingly universal emotion and try to explain it, and it is another to begin the song without the thought – later identifying what emotion sought to be explicated. If Collingwood were to hear A Dream Goes on Forever he would permit it the title or Proper Art rather than Pseudo-Art. Collingwood would be able to recognize that A Dream Goes on Forever’s emotional content does not stem from society but from an individual, as it does not seek to explicate an emotion but simply to express one’s self, exuding a feeling in the process. I think Collingwood would be able to recognize this genuity in the song through his recognition of a difference between pseudo-art existing for its own sake or practical gain, and Art Proper existing as the expression of emotion from an individual.
The application of Collingwood’s theories to Rundgren’s song allows for his notions to be the most plausible to me. Collingwood’s explanations are exact and particular, while alluding to an ambiguous experience of art. This seems more plausible to me as it dictates that the way art exists is multi-faceted and extremely hard to label. This is reflected by Collingwood as through his theories the interpreter (or in the case of A Dream Goes on Forever, the listener) becomes just as much of an artist as the creator of a piece, as the expression of emotion that defines art for Collingwood has to take place individually. Supporting this notion is Collingwood’s idea that a song is an imaginary thing that exists in the creator and the interpreters’ heads. I find this notion plausible as it appears to be an objective labelling of art that permits the idea of art being uniquely subjective in every case.