Does Art have Rules?

Our students in Ancient Philosophy start reading Plato’s Republic this week.  One of the more infamous ideas in this text – ironic or not – is the expulsion of the poets from the city.  Art is dangerous and far removed from truth, so Socrates’ “city in speech” would have us believe.  Socrates therefore imagines what rules the city should impose on the arts.

But are there rules already inherent to the arts?

Check out the ICA’s new digital forum Art Rules to see a host of “rules” to which art should adhere.  For a good commentary on this project, check out the Guardian’s posting on it, “The Rules of Art: Crowdsourcing a new set”


“One of the oldest tropes in art criticism is that a great artist is above rules. The claim was made in the first century AD by Longinus, in his treatise, On the Sublime. Some people say, Longinus declared, that “a great nature” is born, and cannot be formed by teaching or reading a manual. His term for a treatise was technologia, literally “words about an art”. Longinus was responding to a practice pioneered by Aristotle.

Socrates had believed that if you possessed knowledge of a topic you could define it. But poets could talk beautifully about poetry without being able to account for their knowledge. So Socrates decided that such artists were inspired by a god, a notion that still survives, albeit in threadbare form.

This conclusion was unnecessarily downbeat for Aristotle. A mature art form could be described, as his treatises, Rhetoric and Poetics, would prove. Aristotle believed that his descriptions were universal, so that they eventually became prescriptions. The contrary view, that words cannot pin down the sublime, was recorded by Longinus.

Throughout the Middle Ages, ancient knowledge was preserved in books, including tomes on the mathematical and literary liberal arts. Such learning was a precious inheritance carrying great prestige. Of the ancient visual arts, however, only architecture was documented in a treatise.”

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