The Plato game has been really hot for about thirty years. In fact, there are no signs of its demise.The stakes are very high: Careers are made and broken over it; millions can be made and lost because of it.
The Plato game is the ongoing argument between theory and practice and is based on Plato's Theory of Forms. In roughly twenty- or thirty-year cycles, one comes to the forefront, while the other recedes.
Academics in English departments frame the game as one between literary theory and literature. Literary theory has been winning since the eighties, but signs of a turnaround are subtly surfacing.
For artists and museum curators and investors, the game is played between artistic technique and artistic concept.
Denis Dutton, in his article " Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?" in The New York Times (October 15/09), writes about the supremacy of conceptual art in today's museums and markets:
Sophisticated gallery owners or curators normally respond with withering condescension to worries about the lack of craftsmanship in contemporary art... What is important today is not technical skill, but skill in playing inventively with ideas.Dutton believes the supremacy of the concept is temporary and argues that across time and across cultures we do, we have, and we will admire artistic technique, "the pleasure we take in admiring skilled performances;" whereas concepts become dated and stale:
The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist.Aesthetics last, concepts fade. Investors in conceptual art may be left holding the bag when the context for a particular concept is forgotten,and there is no longer anything about the work that speaks to anyone.
So which will it be? Theory or practice; concept or object? The ongoing Plato game is our attempt to answer.
Denis Dutton is professor of philosophy in Christchurch, New Zealand, at Canterbury University. He is the author of The Art Instinct (2009).
I would like to invite Denis Dutton to my soiree.
(with thanks to Joni Mitchell for song The Circle Game)