Understanding Art - The Death of Socrates

When I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, I make it a point to stop by Jacques Louis David's famous neoclassical masterpiece "The Death of Socrates." This habit is motivated partly from a humble desire to pay homage to the inventor of the Socratic method (a tool the use of which has become an essential aspect of my own sense of personal identity), and from a desire to reflect on the meaning of his life and moral fortitude.

But there's also the art, the aesthetic and philosophical contemplation of which almost invariably forces on me the understanding of the necessity and the struggle of balancing realities that are often in conflict with one another: the abstract and the concrete, alienation and connection, distance and understanding, mind and body, authenticity and comfort, feeling and rationality, change and timelessness, meaning and purposelessness, identity and freedom, freedom and equality, individuality and belonging, etc.

Great art often manages to convey its message at various levels of discourse, from the simple and humble to the technical and esoteric. If you've simply seen "The Death of Socrates" before, even in passing, you have probably already experienced some of its emotional, moral and intellectual power. But if you want to get a better sense of how much more there is to this painting than meets the eye, how much thought went into developing every inch, how much history, philosophy, politics, geometry, religion and symbolism is hiding in plain sight, how a centuries-long dialogue is expressed in the negative space between the characters, you will probably find the short introductory video below quite helpful, and your own appreciation of the aesthetic experience enhanced and improved.




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