Some Notes on Plato and Aristotle and Mimetic Theory of Art And a lot of other stuff.
The Mimetic Theory of Art: “Art is essentially an imitation of Nature.”
The Mimetic Theory of Art: • Think of the first four letters: M I M E • Art is essentially an mimicry of nature • Paintings are supposed to look “just like the real thing” etc. • Arguably the oldest and most widely held view on the nature of art. (View held by Plato, et alia.) • Seems to capture a lot of art (certainly within Plato’s time).
The Mimetic Theory of Art: • Problems: • How does this handle music?, abstract art? • What is “mimesis” exactly? (Imitation, mirroring, perceptual equivalence, counterfeiting, idealization, representation?) • If I say that the point of a picture is to capture the world exactly “as it really is,” what am I assuming? (Star Trek story here- or, to save time, picture of Grand Canyon)
The Mimetic Theory of Art: But let’s look as Plato’s View anyway: • Believed that art is essentially an imitation of nature. (Mimetic Theory of Art) • Therefore, (according to Plato) art is at best: (1) useless and (2) potentially dangerous.
Plato’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis • Plato is convinced that “the arts” form a natural grouping and that they all share a common Form • I.E.: “That which all and only Arts have in common by virtue of which we recognize each to be an art and by virtue of which each is an art.” • Not so much an assumption, as the consequence of his Metaphysical Theory of Forms. • We rightly gather them together linguistically because of a metaphysical reality.
Plato’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis • As 20th Century Formalist Clive Bell put is: "either all works of visual art have some common quality, or when we speak of 'works of art' we gibber."
Plato’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis 1. Art was useless: • It serves no useful purpose in society. • As a "Imitation of Nature" it added no knowledge. –No intellectual value- (The same value could be added by simply by holding up a mirror to the world which would be far less costly.) • According his metaphysics, art is an imitation of an imitation, thus barely real at all.
Plato’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis Art was potentially dangerous for several reasons: A.) Art was essentially deceptive. • The whole aim of art was to deceive. Success was achieved when the spectator mistook an imitation for reality. • Furthermore, artists were unconcerned with facts/truth. It made no difference to artists nor to the success of their works whether the images or stories they depict were real or their messages true or good.
Plato’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis B.) Art was mainly concerned with sensual pleasure. • Art seems directed entirely towards pleasing the senses and ignoring the mind, intellect, or concepts.
Plato’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis Remember that, according to Platonic Mind/Body Dualism, our bodies are the least valuable, least permanent, least "real" aspects of our personalities. Further, according to Plato’s Rationalism, our senses are incapable of providing us with genuine knowledge since they only gather impressions from an ever‑changing physical world but not immaterial/invisible forces which guide, direct and sustain the physical world. Thus our senses and, consequently, art are "metaphysically" misguided since it is directed towards illusion and not "reality." Further, Art serves to perpetuate and sustain this misdirection, keeping us ignorant of truth, justice, goodness and "real" beauty.
Plato’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis B.) Art was mainly concerned with sensual pleasure. NB: Note this has not only a Metaphysical and Epistemological Dimension; this has an Ethical Dimension as well. • This has “Ethical” overtones, not so much in the Later Christian Condemnation of Sensualism, but rather the more “Greek” notion, that this was a pathetic way to waste a human life. (Too much T.V.- Cartoons) • Ethical in the sense that this is simply not “what one (human) ought to do.” • Think of the uncanny similarity between the imprisoned slaves in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” who mistakenly take the shadows to be all there is to reality, an those who in a darkened cinema sob uncontrollably when Leonardo DiCaprio goes down for the last time.
Plato’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis B.) Art was mainly concerned with sensual pleasure. • Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age old habit, in mere images of truth. (Susan Sontag) • It must be admitted that if imitation is the sole purpose of the graphic arts, it is surprising that the works of such arts are ever looked upon as more than curiosities, or ingenious toys, are ever taken seriously by grown-up people. (Roger Fry)
Plato’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis c.) Art is psychologically de-stabilizing. • Human existence is, in great part, a struggle to master the emotions and sensual urges by using reason and intellect according to Plato. (His tri-partite theory of the Psyche) • Therefore art was dangerous and counterproductive to this end (i.e. rational self-mastery) since it appeals not to reason and intellect, but to the psychological forces which constantly try to over-through reason, namely passion and emotion. "Poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue"
Plato’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis D.) Art leads to immorality. • Art was unconcerned with morality, sometimes even teaching immoral lessons. (The Iliad) Morality, it would seem, has nothing to do with a work’s success as art. • Plato worries that such art would encourage immorality in the citizens of this state. People might uncritically accept and admire immoral, vicious traits when they are attractively packaged by skilled artists (distinction between truth and illusion/ physicians and cooks/ heath and cosmetics/ beauty and glamour.) Like a skilled chef, artists are only interested in pleasing the palate, even if it poisons the diner. Since (mimetic) art is institutionally divorced from truth, goodness or any concern with 'real' beauty, it creates an environment of superficial "flavors" where all sorts of atrocities can be made to seem a tempting confection.
Plato’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis E.) Art was politically dangerous, a threat to the common good. • Similar to the point made earlier (c), Plato worried that strong art which appeals to emotions stirs up negative emotions which we are trying to control. • But this is more than just a problem for the individual. For a people with a history of "mania," strong, emotion-stirring art is rightly seen as a threat to the good of state/community. • It was, therefore correctly the concern of government. NB: This is similar to the criticism leveled by some today against violence and sex in the media. Like Plato, they argue that violence and sex in the media cause us to be a more violent, sexually obsessed culture. This affects not just the people who consume the violent images, but the entire community of which they are a part.
Plato’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis • Art was potentially dangerous for several reasons: A.) Art was essentially deceptive. (Ep.) B.) Art was mainly concerned with sensual pleasure. (M, Ep., Eth.) C.) Further, Art was psychologically de-stabilizing. (for the individual) (Eth., Ps.) D.) Art leads to immorality. (Eth.) E.) Art was politically dangerous. (threat to the common good) (Po. Ps.)
Plato’s View “there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry; of which there are many proofs, such as the saying of 'the yelping hound howling at her lord,' or of one 'mighty in the vain talk of fools,' and 'the mob of sages circumventing Zeus,' and the 'subtle thinkers who are beggars after all'; and there are innumerable other signs of ancient enmity between them. Notwithstanding this, let us assure our sweet friend and the sister arts of imitation that if she will only prove her title to exist in a well-ordered State we shall be delighted to receive her --we are very conscious of her charms; but we may not on that account betray the truth.”
Plato’s View If her defense fails, then, my dear friend, like other persons who are enamoured of something, but put a restraint upon themselves when they think their desires are opposed to their interests, so too must we after the manner of lovers give her up, though not without a struggle. We too are inspired by that love of poetry which the education of noble States has implanted in us, and therefore we would have her appear at her best and truest; but so long as she is unable to make good her defense, this argument of ours shall be a charm to us, which we will repeat to ourselves while we listen to her strains; that we may not fall away into the childish love of her which captivates the many. At all events we are well aware that poetry being such as we have described is not to be regarded seriously as attaining to the truth; and he who listens to her, fearing for the safety of the city which is within him, should be on his guard against her seductions and make our words his law.
Plato’s View At all events we are well aware that poetry being such as we have described is not to be regarded seriously as attaining to the truth; and he who listens to her, fearing for the safety of the city which is within him, should be on his guard against her seductions and make our words his law.
Plato’s View • Entire Republic can be seen as an argument for allowing Philosophy to do the work accorded to Poetry • In Plato’s defense, today it is widely agreed that the arts do not produce the kind of reliable knowledge or moral wisdom that the sciences and philosophical argument produce. (And Artist still bay at Science and Philosophy) • But do we beg the question against the arts by looking exclusively for propositional knowledge (see renderings of molecules). • Arthur Danto reminds us, "Plato did not precisely propose that art was mimesis, but that mimetic art was pernicious."
Aristotle’s Critical Responses • Aristotle was Plato's most famous student and greatest critic. • Disagreeing with much else that Plato said, Aristotle agreed that art was essentially an Mimesis. • But, he maintained, (good) art was neither useless nor dangerous, but rather natural and beneficial.
Aristotle’s Critical Responses Crucial to Aristotle's defense of art is his • Rejection of Plato's Dualism. • Man is not an "embodied" intellect, longing for the spiritual release of death, but rather and animal with, among all the other faculties, the ability to use reason and to create. • Rejection of Plato’s Rationalism (w.r.t. Human Nature) • We must study humans as we would study other animals to discover what is their "nature." Look among the species; see who are the thriving and successful and in what activities do they engage? For Aristotle, this is how to determine what is and is not appropriate for a human and human societies. • Rejections that Mimesis = Mirroring Nature
Aristotle’s Critical Responses: Art is Not Useless • It is Natural: • It is natural for human beings to imitate. • Any human society which is healthy will be a society where there is imitative art. • Nothing is more natural than for children to pretend. • Art production and training is a necessary part of any education since it uses and encourages the imaginative manipulation of ideas. • Nothing is more natural than for human beings to create using their imagination. • Since art is imitation, it is an imaginative use of concepts; at its heart art is "conceptual," "intellectual."
Aristotle’s Critical Responses: Good Art is Not Dangerous • A. Art is not deceptive: • Artists must accurately portray reality to be successful. (Drama must accurately portray psychological reality in order for characters to be believable and their actions understandable.) • It teaches effectively and it teaches the truth. (Convincing and powerful drama is convincing and powerful because it reveals some truth of human nature.) • Introduces the concept of "Organic Unity" the idea that in any good work of art each of the parts must contribute to the overall success of the whole. (Just as in biological organisms each part contributes to the overall health and well‑being of the creature, so too in –good- works of art, each element must contribute to the thematic development. This is another way in which works of art reflects or imitates reality.) Unified action, "with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole,"
Aristotle’s Critical Responses: Good Art is Not Dangerous • B.) Sensuous art is not a bad thing: • Aristotle did not believe that the mind was one thing and the body was something else and therefore Aristotle did not have the bias against physical pleasures that Plato did. • The only way of acquiring knowledge at all, according to Aristotle, was through the senses and so developing, exercising and sharpening those senses through art was a healthy thing to do. • Art was not solely concerned with the sensual pleasures, but rather was/should be an intellectual, conceptual affair.
Aristotle’s Critical Responses: Good Art is Not Dangerous • D. (Good) Art is institutionally tied to Morality and Truth • (Successful Tragic) Drama always teaches morality. When trying to understand how tragedies achieve their peculiar effect (Pathos), he notes the psychology and morality on which they must be based. NB: Aristotle believed that drama imitated not only "events" but actions. As such they imitated intended behaviors, psychological forces and the unseen "inner life" of persons. Note too that he unwittingly set up two functions for a work of art to fulfill; to imitate nature perceptual detail and to imitate nature’s "organic unity" (music, architecture).
Aristotle’s Critical Responses: Good Art is Not Dangerous • C&E. • Aristotle agreed that art did stir up negative emotions but, he claims it then purged these in an harmless, healthy way. Doctrine of “Catharsis" • Art was neither psychologically de-stabilizing nor politically destructive. • Art is a therapeutic part of the healthy life of not only the individually, but of the nation. NB: Similar to arguments made today in defense of graphically sexual or violent art or even of pornography or of violence on television.
Aristotle’s Critical Responses: Mimesis ≠ Imitation • Mimesis ≠ Imitation (Mirroring) • More like: • Rendering • Depicting • Construing • Idealizing • Representing NB: Unlike mirroring, these are acts of intellect.
Aristotle’s Critical Responses • Poetry is more Philosophical than History • "poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history (He means a mere chronicle of events here.), since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars." • Poetry describes "not the thing that has happened" as Aristotle imagines history does "but a kind of thing that might happen, (i.e. what is possible) as being probable or necessary" • Thus a mere “mirror” of history NOT art. Art is necessarily conceptual/cognitive.
Aristotle’s Critical Responses A further point here: Art displays and transmits this knowledge in an unique way. The audience must understand the universals at work in the drama to be carried away by the drama, and in that sense they must internalize, adopt it as his or her own, the knowledge of human nature and morality utilized by the playwright.
Art was potentially dangerous for several reasons: A.) Art was essentially deceptive. (Ep.) B.) Art was mainly concerned with sensual pleasure. (M, Ep., Eth.) C.) Further, Art was psychologically de-stabilizing. (for the individual) (Eth., Ps.) D.) Art leads to immorality. (Eth.) E.) Art was politically dangerous. (threat to the common good) (Po. Ps.) Art was not potentially dangerous for several reasons: A.) (Good) Art was essentially truthful. (Ep.) B.) Art was mainly concerned with sensual pleasure, and that’s a Good thing. (M, Ep., Eth.) C.) Art was psychologically healthy (for the individual) (Eth., Ps.) D.) Art leads to moral knowledge. (Eth.) E.) Art was politically necessary and healthy. (Po. Ps.) Plato’s and Aristotle’s View:Art is Essentially Mimesis
Nelson GoodmanArt as Representation • Can be seen as a continuation of the idea that Art is (and is essentially) “about” something. • He rejects the idea that Art is an Imitation of nature if imitation is understood as mirroring or copying. • He accepts the idea that art-making is a cognitive act of representing reality.
Goodman’s Analysis of “Representation” in Visual Art Two Questions Arise: • What is the mechanism of representation? • If representational doesn’t depend of Copying or Mirroring, why is it that so much Representational Art DOES seem to resemble the objects, etc. they represent?
Goodman’s Analysis of “Representation” in Visual Art What is the Mechanism of representation? Illusion theory? But this overlooks how people should and do respond to (even very “realistic”) art. Resemblance theory? But resemblance to what and in what way? (Anything might be said to resemble anything else. No simile is, technically, false.) Well…
Goodman’s Criticisms of Resemblance Theory A: Resemblance to the way the world “really is.” But according to Goodman, the world “really is” as many ways at is can be truly described. And no picture can capture that.
Goodman’s Criticisms of Resemblance Theory A: The way the world “really is” for perception. (who’s) A: The way the world “really is” for human perception. (which ones?) A: The way the world “really is” for ordinary, normal human perception. (more spc’s) (from a particular angle, at a certain distance, with one eye closed, through a peep-hole, the see eye unmoving…)
Goodman’s Criticisms of Resemblance Theory As the object looks to “the normal eye, at proper range, from a favorable angle, in good light, without instrumentation, unprejudiced by affections or animosities or interests, and unembellished by thought or interpretation.” • In short, the object is to be copied as seen under septic conditions by the free and innocent eye. • But this requires that there BE such a thing as an “innocent eye.” Ernst Gombrich claims that there is “no innocent eye” “The eye comes always ancient to its work, obsessed by its own past and by old and new insinuations of the ear, nose, tongue, fingers, heart, and brain.” “It does not much mirror as take and make.”
Goodman Looks at Representation Maybe we’re on the wrong track. • Notice resemblance is neither necessary nor sufficient for representation. • Further, resemblance is a symmetric relation and representation is not. What is it for “X” to represent “Y?”
Goodman Looks at Representation What is it for “X” to represent “Y?” • According to Goodman, there is no “Natural” representation. • All representation depends on a pre-existing symbol system. • If pictures represent, they must be understood as symbols within a symbol system.
Goodman Looks at Representation But this implies that we must learn to “read” even “realistic” pictures. (And photos.) • This process may be automatic and unconscious, but it is no less cognitive than hearing and understanding a sentence in one’s native language. • We learn to “see” x as standing for, or even resembling, y.
Goodman Looks at Representation A representation or description, by virtue of how it classifies and is classified, may make or mark connections, analyze objects, and organize the world (as we experience it). • Grasps fresh and significant relationships. • Standard sorting is often serviceable, even if humdrum. • Novel uses of old categories bring out neglected likenesses and differences, force unaccustomed associations, and in some measure remake our world.
Goodman Looks at Representation EX: His graduate assistant is panting puppy. This requires you to “see” both as members of the same set and thus clarifies a heretofore overlooked property. (Perhaps both belong to the class of “things which seek approval give enthusiastic, uncritical support.”) NOTE: If representing is a matter of classifying objects rather than of imitating them, of characterizing rather than of copying, it is not a matter of passive recording.
Goodman Looks at Representation • And if this aim of the picture is achieved, it effects a realignment in our thinking. • (So long as there’s poetry –art- 1984 can’t happen.) • When such a realignment is interesting and useful, the picture, like a crucial experiment, can be said to make a genuine contribution to knowledge. (We can think new thoughts.)
Goodman Looks at Representation Consider this: • To the complaint that his portrait of Gertrude Stein did not look like her, Picasso is said to have answered: "No matter; it will.“ • On Goodman’s view, this is because we will come to see Gertrude Stein in terms of her portrait. • “Nature” is a product of art and discourse
Goodman Looks at Representation • But what about Realism in Representation? • Even if not necessary, don’t (some) Realistic Representations achieve representation via non-cognitive means (i.e. visual resemblance)?
Goodman Looks at Representation • What constitutes realism of representation? Possible Answer #1: • A picture is realistic just to the extent that it is a successful illusion, leading the viewer to suppose that it is, or that it has the characteristics of, what it represents. • Advantages over the “resemblance theory” because • it emphasizes the responses and expectations of the viewer (rather than content to be copied). • It can account for fictive representations (no question of resemblance to what?)
Goodman Looks at Representation Problems: • What deceives depends upon what is observed/expected, and what is observed/expected varies with interests and habits. • What will deceive me into supposing that an object of a given kind is before me depends upon what I have noticed about such objects, and this in turn is affected by the way I am used to seeing them depicted. • Consider the various attempts to mask the signs of aging. What would have worked in the 1700’s no longer does because we have come to notice other signs. 2. If the probability of actual confusion is 1, we no longer have representation; we have identity. 3. Probability of real confusion seldom rises above zero. Seeing a picture as a pictureprecludes mistaking it for anything else. 4. Appropriate conditions of observation defeat deception. • According to Goodman, “When viewing a representational painting I recognize the images as signs for the objects and characteristics represented, signs that work instantly and unequivocally without being confused with what they denote.”