Jonathan Barnes in an essay entitled Rhetoric and Poetics in the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle argues the following:
“An art is a body of knowledge, practical in aim but systematic in organisation, in which particular theorems and precepts are shown to follow from a relatively small set of fundamental truths.”
This may be an over-theoretical account of a realm of human activity which resembles more the realm of practical science than the realm of theoretical science but it has the advantage of manifesting the relation of art to truth which is often forgotten in the hasty retreat to the realm of experience which is a key concern of the arts. Aristotle insisted upon a threefold distinction of sciences: Theoretical, Practical and Productive. But he did not envisage that the practical and the productive sciences would have no connection with the truth.
The human activity of Art, is an activity of mimesis or imitation. Art is imitation Aristotle argues, not of external nature but rather of mans mind, in particular his character, emotions and actions. But why does one desire to imitate? Because firstly,there is both an instinct to imitate demonstrated in the fact that humans distinguish themselves from animals partly in the fact that they learn from other humans by imitating them and secondly because we take delight in imitations. But what then is the telos, the purpose of these mimetic productions? The creation and appreciation of art must be related of course to the flourishing life and its explorations of regions of our mind that seek for understanding with universal intent. The idea of the good object is obviously of major significance in the arena of artistic activity and must be related to both its intellectual and emotional aspects. “Universal intent” here obviously refers to organising our experiences such that we connect emotions and actions that should be connected and differentiate between emotions and actions where there are real differences. Such organisation also entails an understanding of the role of the subject and the role of the object in this process of trying to fathom the depths of the mind. If we are to believe Psychoanalysis, at the bottom of these depths lie the shipwrecks of our experience scattered on the ocean bed and the connection of these fragmented experiences are often not real or as Freud put it, in accordance with the Reality Principle. Death trumps life in such scenes of the unreal.
According to Adrian Stokes in his essay “The Invitation in Art”:
“Structure is ever a concern of art and must necessarily be seen as symbolic, symbolic of emotional patterns, of the psyche’s organisation with which we are totally involved……Patterns and the making of wholes are of immense psychical significance in a precise way even apart from the drive towards repairing what we have damaged or destroyed outside ourselves……in every instance of art we receive a persuasive invitation…we experience fully a correlation between the inner and the outer world which is manifestly structured. And so the learned response to that invitation is an aesthetic way of looking at an object.”
The common element tying all three sciences together is , according to Jonathan Lear in his work on Aristotle, the desire to understand. Man is not satisfied by facts alone, Aristotle claims, he seeks the justifications for these facts, man wishes to know both what and why. The Why could be the principle which would be revealed by the four kinds of explanation outlined in the Metaphysics.
Hylomorphic theory has been haunting aesthetics from the time of Aristotle up to and including the Critical writings of Adrian Stokes. In this theory we have a theory of how the complex human being is teleologically driven in a process of actualisation/development where powers build upon and integrate with other powers beginning from the level of the biological moving to the level of self consciousness via perception, memory and language and terminating in the telos of the actualisation of the potential of rationality in the spheres of practical and theoretical reasoning. This process will obviously involve the holistic organisation of the sensible and intellectual parts of the mind that occurs in symbolic aesthetic encounters with symbolic aesthetic objects. The Desire to understand these parts of the mind is for Aristotle part of the idea of the flourishing life. In a discussion of the representation or imitation of terrible events like death Aristotle points to the interesting fact that even if pity and fear may be involved this occurs under an all encompassing attitude of the desire to learn something from these represented events. Indeed this may be the “mechanism” of the famous Aristotelian “catharsis” where it is insisted that pity and fear are purged or purified. The suggestion here is that the situation of these negative emotions in a positive context transforms them into positive elements of the experience.
The Arts are divided by Aristotle into two categories: those associated with material such as paint stone etc and those associated with “voice”: the former being spatial objects and the latter temporal objects which, include the use of music which is suggestive of various uses of language. The use of language however is not demonstrative as is the case with the theoretical sciences but rather the artistic use of language is in accordance with a technical process designed to instrumentally bring about an effect which given our instinctive delight in imitations must be related to the experience of pleasure. The pleasure involved would seem, however, to be a contemplative reflective pleasure and presumably not the kind of pleasure that we might get at the technical creation of a table for a particular use. Such an act of creating a table will not require the kind of systematic knowledge required for the production of an art object. This is connected to the fact that tables are generic objects whereas art-objects have a uniqueness condition tied to their creation. A table can be an imitation of another table but an imitation of another art object merely encourages a negative judgment and a loss of interest in the object. Also a table is not symbolic of anything else as is a classical image of a man in a classical pose of serenity. Such classical images symbolise the importance of the contemplative or reflective life as well as the importance of the independent self sufficiency of ideal humans in an ideal world. Both of these aspects are so important to the Aristotelian ideal of the flourishing life. One imagines obviously a connection to Philosophy and a reflective use of language in accordance with the slow measured music of self sufficient independent argument Contrast this with our modern art which Stokes claims issues from a depressive anxiety reaction to the loss of good objects in an environment dominated by gasometers and towers. All one can aesthetically do in such an environment is to ignore or accept the offending objects. The invitation of such objects is very different to that of the environment containing the Parthenon. Stokes , in this context, quotes the writings of Renoir’s son:
“We know that in Renoir’s opinion the ugliness of buildings towards the end of the nineteenth century and the vulgarity in design in articles in common use were of far greater danger than wars.”
Renoir himself says:
“We get too accustomed to these things and to such a point that we do not realise how ugly they are. And if the day ever comes when we become entirely accustomed to them, it will be the end of a civilisation which gave us the Parthenon and the cathedral of Rouen. Then men will commit suicide from boredom, or else kill each other off, just for the pleasure of it”(Renoir 1962)”
Impressionism, Stokes claims was a response to the aesthetic poverty of the streets of our cities and the desire in art to shock its audience thereafter stems, he argues from a response to a disjointed chaotic environment. Such reflections lead us to the inevitable conclusion that art must be a kind of therapy for both artist and appreciator. A thought echoed in his account of the catharsis of the emotions of pity and fear in our appreciation of tragedy.
Stokes is drawing attention to an aesthetic tragedy in the process of cultural evolution: a tragedy of which we are largely unaware given the momentum of the transformation of the physical transformation of our urban environments. What is the cause of our failure to use the knowledge we have had access to since Aristotle? Is the desensitising of the aesthetic aspects of our mind the major factor or it the case that we are witnessing the same relativism in this arena as we have witnessed in the ethical arena where the assumption of “utility” has trumped the idea of an actualising process that acquires its identity from a telos or end in itself which is unconditionally valuable. The Good aesthetic object and the good ethical action share an attitude toward tragedy which requires us to learn from them both. “Man desires to know” Aristotle claims in the Metaphysics. What can we know about tragedy after reading Aristotle’s “Poetics”?
Aristotle’s definition of tragedy is:
” the imitation of an action that is serious and complete, and which has some greatness about it. It imitates in words with pleasant accompaniments, each type belonging separately to the different parts of the work. It imitates people performing actions and does not rely on narration. It achieves through pity and fear, the catharsis of these feelings.”
A serious and complete action requires attention to both plot, character and thought. In the former the plot must tie all the elements together into a whole in which events occur “because of each other” and not merely in a reported narrative of ones life “after one another” There must be a beginning, a middle and an end in which there is space for the development of the plot where a good character as a result of a flawed action of considerable magnitude experiences a reversal of fortune and towards the end a recognition of what has happened and its causes and consequences. The plot shall not be too long but be of a magnitude which can be taken in by the memory. The beginnings and ends of tragedy should not be arbitrary but appropriate. The middle of the plot must be necessitated by the beginning and necessitate its end. The final cause of the tragedy is its cathartic effect upon the emotions of fear and pity which naturally arise as a consequence of what we are witnessing. The term catharsis obviously has medical connotations and one often forgets that the medical intention of purging was healing and this was the argument Aristotle made against the objection of Plato to the arousal of such emotions. The pleasure that supervenes upon the learning of what there is to learn in the tragedy occurs not in a frenzy of emotion but rather in the calm after the storm..
The resemblance of this process to what goes on in psychoanalytical therapy has often been mentioned. Sir David Ross in his work on Aristotle has the following to say on the process of catharsis:
“The process hinted at bears a strong resemblance to the “abreaction”, the working off of strong emotion, to which psychoanalysts attach importance. There is some difference however, to what they try to bring about in abnormal cases Aristotle describes as the effect of tragedy on the normal spectator. Do most men in fact go about with an excessive tendency to pity and fear?And are they in fact relieved by witnessing the sufferings of the tragic hero? That we somehow benefit by seeing or reading a great tragedy, and that it is by pity and fear that it produces its effect is beyond doubt: but is not the reason to be found elsewhere. Is it that people deficient in pity and fear because their lives give little occasion for such feelings are for once taken out of themselves and made to realise the heights and depths of human experience? Is not this enlarging of our experience, and the accompanying teaching of “self-knowledge and self-respect” the real reason of the value which is placed upon tragedy?”
The above refers to Aristotle’s learning process in the arena of ethical action. The arrival at the golden mean via a process of inductive trial and error learning is here applied to our emotions and their regulation. One can almost imagine that the terminal response imagined by Aristotle of the audience of the tragedy is well depicted in those sculptures of men in a state of contemplation. The reference to “abreaction” is perhaps only apt if it refers to the mental effects of the talking cure on anxiety levels once the troubling traumas or wishes are subjected to transformation in the memory by being consciously talked about. Catharsis in psychoanalysis differs from catharsis in art in that the former process is happening to the hero of the tragedy and the latter is happening to a disinterested spectator who is not viewing or conceptualising the chain of events as a particular series of events happening to a particular person but more generally and hypothetically: namely, “if someone does this kind of action is done then this kind of fate is the inevitable consequence”. Kant referred to this as “exemplary necessity” in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.
The cathartic process of a patient involves a learning or “recognition” which increases ones own sense of self awareness that one cannot speak with a universal voice about. The cathartic process involved with tragedy on the other hand justifies the use of the universal voice because of the involvement of “exemplary necessity”.
Our modern tragedy of course is related to the failure of our present day culture to be able to speak with a universal voice about itself. Culturally, i.e. politically, ethically and aesthetically we appear to live in a disenchanted tragic world in which the voices of Aristotle, Kant and Freud and their followers are drowned out by the collective contradictory voices of the popular mythical thousand headed monster. The knowledge spoken of at the beginning of this lecture is no longer being taught. There are no rescuing heroes anymore and there is no catharsis for anyone in such circumstances, only disenchantment.