WORDS AND IMAGES JOSTLED one another, co-operatively or competitively, in diverse areas of classical Athenian culture. This chapter will address one particular domain in which images, the images of figurative art, were subjected to the questioning of words, the words of philosophical enquiry. I am concerned here with philosophical discussion of images – discussion not, for the most part, of specific images, but of images as a class of objects: objects with representational content, or, in Greek terms, mimetic objects, mimêmata. Mimesis is still a widely misunderstood concept (or family of concepts, as it is preferable to say). Its continued translation as ‘imitation’, which has become largely inimical to any effort to do justice to the scope and ramifications of the concept, is only the most immediate index of this state of affairs. One purpose of this essay is to try to show that the understanding of mimesis, principally in the context of Plato's references to the visual arts, is more complex, but also more rewarding for the history of aesthetics, than existing accounts might suggest.
Plato refers to artistic images, especially painting, on numerous occasions. He does so, it is true, predominantly for the purposes of analogy or by way of obiter dicta, rather than with sustained attention to the subject in its own right. But as Wittgenstein was fond of stressing, the analogies philosophers draw are revealing, and indeed partly constitutive of their patterns of thought. One reason for the frequency and range of references to graphic and plastic art in Plato is a responsiveness to the prominence of images in the surrounding culture, that is especially in fourth-century Athens. While philosophy partly shaped itself, then as later, by standing back critically from its cultural environment, Plato certainly did not close his eyes to the images of the painters and other artists. For Plato, the mimetic or figurative arts (including narrative textiles, which he interestingly mentions several times) are part of the city of luxury in the Republic, the city which suffers, so Socrates suggests, from a cultural ‘fever’ whose affinities with Athens itself need no demonstration. For my present purposes, however, direct connections with elements of contemporary Athenian culture will remain in the background.