Aristotle and didacticism in art

As usual, Aristotle follows Plato and suggests that the arts are about imitation. He suggests that humans are imitative by nature and delight in imitation. We even like to see the nasty bits imitated. In Poetics, he says that “though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies.” I’m reminded of Basil Fawlty saying to Sybil, “That type would wear a dog turd around his neck if it was made of gold.”

Here is the spot where Aristotle goes a little further than his teacher and says that there is a another factor involved. That is, “to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity for it; the reason of the delight in seeing the picture is that one is at the same time learning – gathering the meaning of things.” Even dumb people like to learn.

The problem that Aristotle sets up is one that we haven’t quite resolved yet. Does art have content that is being communicated? Should it? If it does, what is the content made from? The artists emotions? In fact, Aristotle says that if we don’t grasp the content because we are unfamiliar with the object that is being imitated, our pleasure “will not be in the picture as an imitation of it, but will be due to the execution of colouring or some similar cause.” So, failing to grasp content, we are thrust back to execution. At this point in history, I don’t think Aristotle would argue that the execution is the content.

We tend to get a little skittish around obvious didacticism in art works, sort of. When artists are purposefully heavy handed in making a point that is “non-art” related, things get weird. So, some people like To Kill a Mockingbird because it teaches tolerance, and that’s OK, but if the art work teaches something different, let’s say something like a minstrel show that exploits racial stereotypes, then it’s “propaganda”. There is a dangerous line here. We’ve seen it in recent years with things like Michael Moore’s films. Some say they are documentaries. Some say they are propaganda films. That is, if I like the content, it’s art. If I don’t like the content, it’s propaganda.

The danger, as I see it, is that the easy solution is to separate the technical matter from the content. Then we can say, “I can appreciate it from a technical artistic point of view, but I disagree with the content.” I’m still not convinced of this approach. I suppose that is mostly because in my own work, I find that form and content have such a symbiotic relationship that I find it hard to separate the two and still conceive of the work in the same way. This makes me very confused on the didacticism question too. I hate a sit-com that tries to teach me a moral lesson, but I love a folk story that does the same thing. I hate the Czerny Etudes, but I love the Chopin Etudes. I can’t tolerate a televangelist telling me not to be envious, but I love Othello. I have a suspicion that what I don’t like about the things I hate is not just the execution, but the execution as it is conceived in relation to the content. I guess that’s because I have a difficult time grasping what execution without content might really mean.

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