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In a film titled “Richard T. Scott—Painted Philosophy,” (YouTube) Scott refers to Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave as the inspiration for this artwork. Actually, the allegory was written by Plato in Book VII of The Republic and Socrates was the imaginary narrator of the dialogue. Plato thought that art was illusory and based solely upon appearances, like the shadows on the cave wall. He wrote, “Painting works far away from truth…and makes bosom friends with that part in us which is far away from wisdom for no healthy and true end.” So why does Scott hold him in such high esteem?
Scott titles his painting “The Sophist.” If I understand him correctly, the title refers to the man standing in the middle of the canvas, a man who, because he ignores the background—the rocket launching into the sky, the impending storm on the horizon—is a sophist, a person whose ego, as expressed in rhetoric and not logic, overpowers his reason.
For the sophist, logic is true only in itself, in the mind and not in the world in which we live. It leads to metaphysical and ethical conclusions that are contradictory and not convincing. At most, we can be persuaded that something is true, not convinced that it is so. Thus, he is able to look away from the contradictory event, a rocket taking off into a tornado. Maybe he’s a reporter covering the strange event or a weatherman braving the storm. Certainly, he’s not an artist, philosopher, or scientist recording all the phenomena with which to create or theorize.
The scene is highly imaginary, for a real sophist would not be pointing toward himself to persuade his audience. He would be pointing toward the horizon and be saying, "Look, people, the rocket will be destroyed," or, "Look, people, the rocket is going to make it." He takes his chances, which are 50/50 that he will become famous. It is contradictory, though, that the sophist has an audience, which would not be paying attention to him at all in such a case.
Sophistry has a derogatory implication and maybe Scott sees a lot of it in our society. But could this painting itself be an act of sophistry? The sophist looks curiously like Scott. Is he not convinced himself?
The painting is not convincing and tries to persuade us with its dark, foreboding tones, as if to say, “Look, Rembrandt painted it. It’s got to be great.” But we as viewers see all this, which makes it an interesting work of art, unlike most.