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Aesthetics in Europe and the Americas

Classical Anticipations

Both Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) have extensive and influential discussions of art and beauty, and there is a clear sense that in many cases they were contributing to debates already well established in ancient Greek culture. Plato, for example, famously refers to the "ancient quarrel" between poetry and philosophy. When Batteux, as we have seen, uses the term imitation to characterize a feature common to the fine arts he is self-consciously evoking the notion of mimesis, central to ancient Greek thought about the arts. The precise meaning of mimesis, sometimes translated as "imitation," sometimes "representation," is disputed. Undoubtedly Plato often uses the term with negative connotations, as when, in the Timaeus, he refers to poets as a "tribe of imitators." In book ten of the Republic, Plato gives an unflattering account of a painter, whose picture of a bed is twice removed from reality being a mere "imitation" of a carpenter's bed, which itself is a copy of an ideal form. Plato's constant worry about mimetic art, especially poetry, was that it dealt in appearance or illusion, thus being both epistemologically and morally suspect. It was the Neoplatonist Plotinus (205–270 C.E.), writing over five hundred years later, in the Enneads, who showed how Plato's metaphysics of forms could be reconciled with a positive conception of artistic mimesis. Plotinus argued that art, by directly imitating the forms themselves, could aspire to an even greater beauty than that found in nature and thus achieve the highest truthfulness.

This debate about the truth of art resonates through the centuries. Plato's pupil Aristotle addressed the matter in his treatise Poetics, a discussion of the nature and status of poetic tragedy that has become one of the seminal texts in Western aesthetics. For Aristotle the desire to imitate is both natural and a source of pleasure. Tragedy is an imitation of action and attains, according to Aristotle, thereby contradicting Plato, a status somewhat akin to philosophy in presenting universal truths about what "such and such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do." Aristotle went on to argue that mimesis in tragedy had other values as well, including the pleasurable stirring of emotion, notably pity and fear, leading to an ultimate purgation (katharsis) or cleansing. The perplexing problem of what makes the viewing of tragedy a pleasurable experience is the subject of a subtle essay by David Hume, "Of Tragedy" (1757).

Although the ancient Greek philosophers had much to say about each of the individual art forms—drama, poetry, music, painting, and sculpture—it seems they possessed no concept equivalent to fine art. The term technē is sometimes translated as "art" but is closer to "craft" in the modern sense, denoting a specialized skill. For Plato the highest "art" is the statecraft taught to the young guardians in the Republic, which intriguingly he sometimes compares to painting, coloring sculpture, or writing a tragedy. Perhaps, though, the main reason for locating the origins of modern aesthetics in the eighteenth century rather than in ancient Greek philosophy is that there is no systematic attempt in the latter to address interconnected issues about the role of beauty and the arts in human experience. Both Plato and Aristotle write about beauty (to kalon) and, although disagreeing on its metaphysical status, broadly agree on the marks of beauty: "measure and proportion" (Plato), "order and symmetry and definiteness" (Aristotle). But such observations are integrated into more general discussions, and neither philosopher felt the need for a distinctive branch of philosophy given over to aesthetic concerns.

In subsequent centuries, up to the eighteenth century, a similar story could be told of isolated, sometimes brilliant, sometimes hugely influential, contributions, but there was no sustained attempt (as epitomized by Kant's Critique of Judgment) to establish a philosophy of the beautiful. Often the legacy of debates from the Greeks is in evidence, few more so than Plato's attack on poetry. A deep ambivalence is manifest throughout the history of the Christian Church from the early church fathers through the Middle Ages toward secular poetry and in particular drama. Plato's concerns about the falsehood and seductiveness of poetry and its antipathy to reason found an analogue in Christian thought in the profane and the sacred. Periodic defenses of poetry were not uncommon. Sir Philip Sidney's (1554–1586) Defense of Poesie (1595) takes on the Puritans and is an eloquent argument for the educative and edificatory benefits of poetry. Curiously, in spite of the extraordinary flourishing of the arts in the European Renaissance, the two hundred years between 1400 and 1600 saw little sustained philosophical debate about the arts or beauty. Treatises on individual arts by the likes of Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) were concerned more with theoretical questions about aim and technique than with abstract philosophical investigation. These would not standardly be classified as works in aesthetics, in the stricter sense that emerged after Baumgarten.

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