Aristotle's Theory On Art

Aristotle, the greek philospopher views art as an imitation of life. He develops ways to categorize and evaluate art in his writings.

Many people would look at one of Jackson Pollock's canvases and question whether the wild splashes of paint constitute a work of art. If you were standing next to Aristotle as you viewed the canvas, he might tell you that Pollock's work is not true art because it doesn't reflect any aspect of natural life. Aristotle was the first to introduce the theory that art imitates nature. He considered the origin of art as a basis for his argument. Throughout his theory, he developed a method for evaluation and classification of art.

Aristotle attributed the origin of art to the human affinity for imitation. From childhood, imitation is the primary method of learning. Aristotle concluded that it is natural for humans to "delight in works of imitation." In modern society this theme is demonstrated in the general fascination with horrific news stories such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the crash of Flight 800.

Aristotle presented three methods for classifying art based on the idea of art as imitation. The first method involves a difference in the means of imitation. In the first chapter of Poetics, Aristotle wrote, "Just as color and form are used as means by some . . .and the voice is used by others; . . .the means with them as a whole are rhythm, language, and harmony." These three elements, whether they are combined or employed separately, constitute the means of imitation. This definition provides a way to distinguish among music, poetry, dance, and drama.

Examination of the object being represented is another way to classify art. Aristotle made a distinction about the motive of the action being imitated. He wrote in Poetics, "It follows, therefore, that the agents represented must be either above our own level of goodness, or beneath it, or just such as we are;" In this way, Aristotle introduced the idea of virtue as a factor in the object of imitation. The object or action being represented is the main difference between a comedy and a tragedy. Both can be presented using the same means and with the same dramatic manner, but the actions being imitated in a comedy are positive like love and humor while a tragedy brings out the darker side of human nature.

The manner in which the object is presented is the final way to evaluate the arts. Aristotle outlined three ways an object may be presented: "one may either speak at one moment in narrative and at another in assumed character . . . or one may remain the same throughout . . . or the imitators may represent the whole story dramatically." This description deals mainly with poetry, but it can be modified to apply to other art forms.

Aristotle's theory on art examines art as a productive science. The quality of the object produced determines the merit of the art. The art is found within the product not within the mind of the artist. This theory promotes critical evaluation because the evaluator doesn't need to consider the message or intent of the artist when evaluating the object. The message of the artist may be absent or unclear, but if the object itself is a nearly perfect imitation, it could be considered a wonderful piece of art. The circumstances or history behind the work are also insignificant during the assessment of its artistic value.

The perspective of art as a productive science raises questions about trades such as medicine, architecture, and cobbling. These sciences certainly have a product-a healthy patient, a building, or a shoe. In what way could these objects be considered imitations? Should these objects be considered art in the same way a song or a play would be considered art? In response to the first question, I propose that we examine specific examples for their imitative quality. The architectural style of Frank Lloyd Wright is an illustration of the way a building can imitate nature. The color, shape, and materials utilized in his buildings were chosen to mirror the natural landscape of their location. The most recognizable aspect of a shoe is its resemblance to the form of the human foot. In this way, a shoe could be seen as an imitation of the wearer. These examples indicate that some productive sciences would meet the criteria in Aristotle's definition of art. Historically, a major criticism of Aristotle's theory on art has been his failure to differentiate between mechanical and fine arts.

Another difficulty with the idea of art as imitation is the fact that each person who is viewing, hearing, reading, etc. comes from a different perspective. This person may never have experienced the object of imitation, and therefore would not consider the piece to be art. It would also be difficult to evaluate art if the person had never seen or heard what is being imitated. A person who had spent his or her entire life in a remote part of Alaska could look at a painting of a palm tree and not consider it to be an imitation of nature. A counterpart in the Caribbean may recognize the painting as an excellent imitation of a palm tree. This inconsistency represents a major flaw in Aristotle's theory.

If art were viewed solely as an imitation of life, a whole class of abstract works would not be considered art. Cubism and Pop Art are two types of art that have many valuable characteristics, but are not realistic imitations of nature. The creativity and social implications demonstrated in many works of art are not considered in Aristotle's theory. The imitation theory rewards those who copy nature. Imagination and creativity aren't given the credit they deserve. The originality of an idea should be considered in evaluating its artistic merit.

Aristotle's theory of art as imitation provides a basis for classification of art forms. This theory appeals to human nature, but lacks more refined ideas about viewer response and abstract art forms.

© High Speed Ventures 2011