Aristotle’s Function Argument and Art

In the last post I briefly considered Aristotle’s function argument.  In this post I would like to consider the question of art.  Humans seem pretty unique in creating and appreciating art.  Every culture has something like fine art, and most of us seem to be obsessed with telling stories or creating things, whether it is music or even just a personal fashion style.  While there is an important difference between art and entertainment, creating stories and images seems to be essential to the human psyche.

The purpose of art is complex and multifaceted.  But I think exploring why art is so human is enlightening.  Broadly considered, art seems to be the creation of images guided by rationality.  These images can be the image of a life, as in a novel, or the image of a great man, as in a painting or sculpture.  But because humans are by  nature rational, we are able to reflect and deliberate.  Art gives us the opportunity to think about ideas and choices in a way that is practical.  Unlike a moral sermon or ethics textbook, which dictate good and bad, and unlike an encyclopedia or textbook which merely give us facts and disembodied ideas, art affords us the opportunity to really look at something and evaluate it.  In a sense, engaging with art is an opportunity for us to practice out human rationality and judgment skills.  As it turns out, this is just what the virtues do according to Aristotle: they allow our reason the opportunity to dictate standards and proportions to our feelings, judgments, and desires.

Why is then that so many of us enjoy making art and not just appreciating it?  I think because making art and appreciating art are essentially the same activity. When we write a poem or paint a picture, we are applying structure, form, and often moral judgment to some life or idea.  And structure, form, and moral judgment are just what human rationality applies to things.  Rationality applies standards to choices and actions.  Perhaps, then, in order to fully judge what is good art or bad art, we would have to further inquire into what human rationality is, and whether it can found in pieces of art.  For example, does a painting by Jackson Pollock display the same sort of rationality as a poem by John Keats?  I think it is an interesting question.

Lastly, as I mentioned earlier there is a difference between art and entertainment.  This doesn’t mean that art is not entertaining, but it should make us stop and ask whether any particular television show is an example of rationality or whether it is a series of images designed to makes us feel, first and foremost, pleasure at some absurd collection of events.  Try thinking about this next time you watch a television show.

(I didn’t talk about music at all, which seems to be different than the other arts but perhaps in the future I’ll look at what the brilliant Arthur Schopenhauer has to say about music and art.)

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