Plato and Aristotle, discussing the nature of reality

What does it mean to “read” an image? Images are deceivingly simple; many can glance at one for a few short seconds and then form a conclusion about what the image is meant to convey. For some imagery, this quick assessment of its message is necessary, such as with road signs or warning labels. A lot of imagery, however, contains much more than that which can be understood with just a glance.

Every image has a focal point, a spot that the eye is initially drawn to. Some might think that this focal point shows the intended story the image is trying to tell. However, I find that it’s all the little details of an image that really rounds out the story, and sometimes can even change the message completely.

For this first image, I began “reading” it by allowing my eye to fall on the focal points. The father pig is the largest part of the photo, and the others are looking at him, so he becomes the first thing I assess. The next detail I noticed was the blood on his shirt, and then my brain attempted to read the expressions on the other pigs’ faces to see if they were concerned about the blood. It wasn’t until after I took in the pigs that I noticed the wolf in the window. The wolf’s presence changes the story completely. In all the classic fairy tales, the wolf is the bad guy. When I first saw the blood on the large pig’s shirt, I thought that he had been up to something sinister. Seeing the wolf however and knowing the history of fairy tale wolves and pigs, I now assume that the big pig was attacked by the wolf and fought him off. The concern on the kids faces is no longer “what horrible thing did daddy do?” It becomes, “daddy how do we get out of this situation?” Even after fully reading this image, I am still unsure about the story it is meant to tell. The blood on the pig’s nice suit creates an eerie feeling that feels like it goes beyond the classic tale of pig vs wolf. The fact that the phone is on the table but not in use also adds depth to the story. Why wouldn’t the pig call for help upon seeing the wolf outside? Maybe it’s more complicated than that.

I read the second image in a similar way. My eye is initially drawn to the smoke, and the first thing I think of upon seeing smoke from a city on the water is 9/11. Just like how I went to check the faces of the pigs next for context clues, I now look at the faces of the people in the image. I was expecting them to be shocked and upset, but they look like they are having a great time. The contrast between the smoke and the people relaxing and socializing in the sun is unsettling. My brain can’t seem to piece the two parts of the image together and it makes me wonder if the smoke is photoshopped into it. This questioning of the image’s truth brings me to Plato.

Plato believed that images were “a long way removed from truth,” (Plato et al., Republic), and based on these two images alone I would have to agree with him. Both images have an unsettling feeling to them that makes me believe I do not know the whole story. The fact is though, that even if I were able to talk to the people (or pigs) in these images and hear their side of things, that still wouldn’t be the whole truth. Everyone has their own version of reality, their own perception of events. Artists, and their images, depict their truth. They show a glimpse into how they view reality and what they deem important or interesting. It is not fair then, for Plato to attack artists and icons as the sole deceivers of society. I don’t believe artists were even trying to capture “the truth”. They were simply showing the world how they viewed things, and it’s up to the ones viewing the image to take from it what they want.

Want more information about Plato’s theories of art? This blog sums it up nicely. Plato’s Theories of Art

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