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Aristotle's concept of mimesis


To: Andrew W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle's concept of mimesis
Date: 22 April 2005 10:40

Dear Andrew,

Thank you for your email of 13 April, with your essay for the Associate Award in response to the question, ''Art either brings to an end what nature cannot achieve, or it mimesises nature'. (Physics 199a). Discuss Aristotle's concept of mimesis.'

I enjoyed this essay a lot and I agree with you that it would make a good Philosophy Pathways article.

The critique of the notion that 'art imitates nature' is a great topic, especially for readers new to aesthetics, because it produces such spectacular results. The last thing you would expect from Aristotle is praise for the work of Jackson Pollock. But you make a good case. I am almost convinced.

If Aristotle was here now, would he see what the educated critic sees? Or, rather, could he learn to see? (It's hardly likely that he would see straight off - consider the history that lies behind abstract expressionism.)

I don't know the answer to that question. I would like to think, Yes.

Before I go any further, one thing which is noticeably absent is any discussion of music. It is the (apparent) inability of the representational account to explain the aesthetics of music which is the core of the case that Aristotle's view of art is 'too narrowly restrictive'. Yet there is a very strong analogy between abstract expressionism and musical composition. It's worth making this point.

The key step in your argument is summed up in your quote from Bredin, 'Art mimesises... the universal immanent process of self-unfolding, the internal principle that produces and manifests itself in natural things.' I would have liked to have seen a deeper analysis of this claim. My immediate response is, how, exactly? how does art do this?

The first step is to say that an artwork, just like a biological form, is a structure made for an end, which is none other than the last stage of the process of construction. As you quote, 'Nature is the end for the sake of which. For if a thing undergoes a continual change toward some end, that last stage is actually that for the sake of which.' As it stands, however, this is utterly mysterious when applied to a work of art. If we nod in assent, this is only because we have already bought the idea that an artwork as intrinsic value, as contrasted with the extrinsic, functional value of a tool or gadget.

You immediately connect this with Aristotle's claim that the end towards which the construction of an artwork aims is none other than man. Why? Because 'art is the result of an idea or plan in the creator's mind'. But this is either empty or circular. What is the difference between an artistic plan and a non-artistic one?

Come to think of it, is that even true? Does Jackson Pollock have a 'plan in his mind' which he executes, or is it rather that the painting as it develops follows its own intrinsic 'laws' which the painter has no choice but to follow? Surely it is the notion of 'internal laws' which is the key here. What we are looking for is something analogous to a 'natural history' of the artwork, a theory which explains how it is that the painter, or poet, is able to legitimately feel 'this, and only this, is the right way to continue'.

You go on to talk about 'ideal forms' and 'things as they ought to be'. In the context of story telling. As we all know, this is something which greatly interested Aristotle. What makes a good storyline? Why do we laugh at comedy, or feel moved by tragedy? and what role does 'mimesis' play in this?

Generations of philosophers have struggled and failed to explain why we find some things funny. But the answer lies here, if anywhere.

The fractal theory is highly suggestive (you need to make your discussion here a little less allusive - you can't assume that the reader has encountered this theory before). But it also tempts us in a direction which takes us away from human nature. Fractals are pure mathematical forms which, one might suppose, any intelligent being anywhere in the universe would be capable of recognizing. But is that necessarily true? How confident are you that any intelligent being would appreciate music?

Perhaps the answer lies in your remark about the artist giving 'insights with things on various levels, producing layers of meaning'. Any satisfactory account will be multi-layered. So perhaps there is room for both types of aesthetic quality, species-dependent and species-transcendent.

All the best,