Plato: Imitation & Forms


Joseph Kosuth
One and Three Chairs
Wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of “chair”
The Museum of Modern Art, New York City

“Plato does not deny the fascination or amusement value of imitation; what he questions is its capacity to serve in the pursuit of truth”

In Book X of the Republic, Plato addresses the “problem” with poetry and painting. He finds that both poetry and painting merely imitate an idea or object, which inhibits the thing’s ability to demonstrate the reality or actual truth within it. Plato decides that these two forms of imitation should not be allowed into the proper state of truth and wisdom, because they do not support the truths necessary for man’s understanding of the world. Plato explains that poets, even the great Homer, emphasize weaknesses and undesirable traits of man that are then sympathized by the reader. These sympathies then make it easier for the reader to incorporate such impulsive and useless feelings into their real lives, which does not aid in creating a better State or prove helpful in realizing the truths of the world. Plato argues that “poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue.”

Plato describes the art of poetry and painting as consisting of mere imitations of true and actual things. He uses the example of tables and beds; the general idea and “essence” of a table and bed cannot be rendered within a poem or painting but can be only imitated, therefore leaving the reader or viewer with an image of some thing (bed or table) that is not the true essence of the thing itself, but a mere shadow of the thing being represented. The form of the thing itself gets increasingly diluted in each subsequent form of material expression, from the idea in the mind of the craftsman, the material object, down to the imitation. Plato states, “…the excellence or beauty or truth of every structure…is relative to the use for which nature or the artist has intended them,” meaning that the object or concept is the most true at the top of the usage scale starting with the craftsman and ending with the imitator. Despite his frustrations, Plato is open to including poetry and painting into the State if someone can provide him with a convincing argument as to why.

This information is based on readings from: Preziosi, Donald. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009): pp. 504-509, “Coda: Plato’s Dilemma and the Task of then Art Historian Today,” Williams, Robert. Art Theory: An Historical Introduction (Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009): Chapter 1, “Antiquity and the Middle Ages.” and Plato. The Republic: Book X. Can be viewed at:

One and Three Chairs: This work of art, installed in MOMA, presents three very different expressions of “chair.” This installation challenges the viewer to consciously contemplate the meaning of “chair” and the various ways this object can be represented. How might this artwork confront Plato’s characterization of form, object, and imitation?