The question whether or not we can learn from art goes as far back as Plato's warning about the dangers of indulging in both mimetic and narrative representations of the world and of human actions. The ensuing debate has endured in the contemporary philosophical literature and has spurred the further question of how we can learn from art. The arguments both for and against the notion that we can learn from art have developed as well. The debate is not any less complicated than it was historically, nor is it any closer to being resolved.
There are two extreme positions that one could take in answer to the question, "Can we learn from art?" Either we can, and do, learn from art, or we cannot in any meaningful sense attain knowledge that is non-propositional. Those who argue that we can learn from art generally argue that our engagement with art arouses certain emotions or activities that are able to facilitate or produce knowledge. They would argue that there is some aspect of the artwork which can help to produce greater understanding of the world around us. Art is thus seen as a source of insight and awareness that cannot be put into propositional language; but it can help us to see the world in a new or different way.
Those who deny that we can learn from art often argue that there can be no knowledge that is not propositionally-based knowledge. Jerome Stolnitz, for example, claims in a 1992 article that art does not and cannot contribute to knowledge primarily because it does not generate any sort of truths. Those who argue this line want to defend the notion that since art cannot provide facts or generate arguments, then we cannot learn from it. Further, those who believe we cannot learn from art argue that art cannot be understood as a source of knowledge because it is not productive of knowledge, taken in the traditional sense of justified true belief. Art does not have propositional content that can be learned in a traditional way, even though it can been seen to have effects that promote knowledge and that can either encourage or undermine the development of understanding. Art can thus be rejected as a source of knowledge because it does not provide true beliefs, and because it does not and cannot justify the beliefs that it does convey. Both extremes agree that if art can be seen as a source of knowledge, the only way that it could possibly fulfill such a function would be if that knowledge reflected something essential to art's nature and value.
Plato points out in the Republic (595-601) that it is possible to make a representation of something without having knowledge of the thing represented. Painters represent cobblers when the painters have no knowledge of shoemaking themselves, and poets write about beauty and courage without necessarily having any clear knowledge of these virtues. Only philosophers, the lovers of wisdom, and especially those who strive to intuit the Forms and employ abstract reasoning, can really have knowledge of these virtues. Artists mislead their viewers into thinking that knowledge lies in the represented (mimetic) object. Plato's concern in the Republic extends to the literary arts in particular, which are created with the express purpose to move us emotionally in such a way that one's character could be corrupted (605-608). The more one indulges in emotions aroused by representation, according to Plato, the more likely one is to suffer the effects of an unbalanced soul, and ultimately the development of a bad character.
Aristotle agreed with Plato that art could indeed influence the development of one's moral character. While Plato thought that we can learn from art and that it is detrimental to one's character, however, Aristotle argued that indulging in the same mimetic emotions that Plato warned us of can actually benefit one's character by producing an emotional catharsis (Poetics 1449b24-29). By purging the tragic emotions in particular, Aristotle held, one has a better chance of being more rational in everyday life. Thus, while both philosophers believed that we learn from art, one (Plato) argued that the knowledge gained was detrimental while the other (Aristotle) argued that it was beneficial.