What is Aristotle's theory of art?

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Aristotle's theory of art revolves around imitation and the human pleasure derived from it. He views art as an intellectual exercise that captures reality and enhances it by removing imperfections. Art, according to Aristotle, seeks to express universal truths in specific instances and can serve as a catharsis for intense emotions. This theory is explored in his works like "Poetics," "Politics," "Nicomachean Ethics," and "Rhetoric," where he discusses various forms of art, including music, poetry, sculpture, and painting.

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Aristotle attributes much of art to the intellect's amazing ability to recognize patterns and the human tendency to imitate. Humans clearly take pleasure in discovering likenesses, and according to Aristotle, much of our compulsive need to create art comes from this pleasure. However, imitation is not the only purpose of art. To take it a step further, Aristotle believed that part of the artistic exercise was not only to capture what we see, but to make it more extraordinary by removing its imperfections.

According to Aristotle, art is an attempt to grasp at universal truths in individual happenstances. Aristotle took a particular interest in tragedy through art, which he described as an imitation of action. It creates a treatment for the more unbearable passions we hold in our minds. Aristotle referred to this phenomenon as catharsis.

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When we talk about Aristotle's theory of art, we are actually discussing his treatments of "those things pertaining to the Muses" or, in practice, music, poetry, sculpture and painting. These are discussed in several of Aristotle's extant works, Poetics, Politics, Nicomachean Ethics, and Rhetoric.

All arts, for Aristotle (though music is somewhat of an exception), are forms of imitation or mimesis. Visual arts imitate by means of paint or stone and verbal arts by means of words. We derive natural pleasure from imitation. The arts can benefit the polis because they function to train the emotions. In the case of tragedy, for example:

...through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of such emotions.

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Discuss Aristotle's theory of art in detail.

The philosophical concept of aesthetics was nonexistent until the eighteenth century and, therefore, it did not exist in ancient times. Nevertheless, ancient Greek philosophers did consider and theorize about the elements of aesthetic properties.

Discussing Aristotle’s theories on art requires an understanding of what was known as mimesis in the ancient world, especially in Greece. In the time of Aristotle, the Greeks had not conceptualized or categorized what we would refer to as fine art. In Poetics, however, Aristotle appears to allude to a theory akin to mimesis, which might be considered an early definition of a concept relating to fine arts.

Mimesis is basically an imitation of the real world found in literature and art. We know Aristotle mentions the concept in relation to literary plots:

As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.”

Applying the mimesis concept to visual arts, Aristotle believes that truth results from perfectly replicating nature. Art, in his view, must represent beauty and beauty is found in reality. He believes that human beings derive pleasure from the beauty found in nature. In his view, this is how people learn. Thus, art must accurately represent reality so humans can learn and derive maximum pleasure from the process of learning. For example,

“Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator.”

What Aristotle is saying is that the simple copying of objects is insufficient to capture its beauty. It must be replicated in nature to constitute art, which means even a dead body can be beautiful if imitated accurately enough so that spectators can see the entire organism as a whole. Art is not just a moment of time in which people capture a glimpse of something.

Simplistically stated with respect to visual arts, it is not sufficient for a painter to imitate a physical object. To constitute art, the painter must reproduce the object in nature perfectly. The object must be re-created or re-presented. In that way, humans can enjoy art and learn from it.

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Discuss Aristotle's theory of art in detail.

Aristotle believed, unlike Plato, that art is imitation. Plato believed that art as imitation was bad because it failed on three different levels: epistemological, theological, and psychological. For Plato, imitation "removes reality," "represents gods in inappropriate ways," and "undermines stability."

Aristotle, on the other hand, believed in the power of imitation in art. For him, imitation is natural (learned young), and imitation is how behaviors are learned. Without imitation, some may not learn. Art, for Aristotle, allows for the wondrous in life to emerge. 

Another aspect of art is its relation to catharsis. Catharsis refers to purification or purging. According to Aristotle, catharsis is important in art because it allows humans to move through the pain and come out cleansed on the "other side." Through the ability to remove one's self from the pain, he or she is able to reflect upon it and learn from it (tying the ideology back to the reasoning that art as imitation is good).

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