The Artist — Life or Work?

Do you need to know the details of an artist’s life, or even like the person, to be able to appreciate the work? At the beginning of Ioon, Plato has Socrates say this: 

I must say I have often envied you rhapsodes, Ion, for your art: for besides that it is fitting to your art that your person should be adorned and that you should look as handsome as possible, the necessity of being conversant with a number of good poets, and especially with Homer, the best and divinest poet of all, and of apprehending [530c] his thought and not merely learning off his words, is a matter for envy; since a man can never be a good rhapsode without understanding what the poet says. For the rhapsode ought to make himself an interpreter of the poet’s thought to his audience; and to do this properly without knowing what the poet means is impossible. So one cannot but envy all this.

[translated by W.R.M. Lamb, 1925]

Note how Plato/Socrates invert the commonly proffered argument that to understand a work of art, it may (or may not) be good to learn something about the author’s life in general, or at least the circumstances in which the particular work of art was created. The rhapsode, the expert performer of the epics of Homer, must rather understand (συνίημι, litt. bring together) what the poet means to be able to act as an interpreter (ἑρμηνεύς) of the artist’s thinking (διάνοια) for the audience. So the work of art serves to understand the artist’s inner world.

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