May 06, 2009

Art or propaganda?

Plato (left) and Aristotle in a detail from Raphael's The School of Athens. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Goat Rope has been spending time lately with the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, especially with his theories about literature, poetry and tragedy.

The contrast between Aristotle and his teacher Plato is often pretty striking and that is particularly the case with regard to what we would call literature and what they would call poetry.

Aristotle felt at home in the world of matter and the senses while Plato did not. Humans had their place in the natural order of things and art had its origin in human nature.

In his Republic, Plato argued, with the voice of Socrates, that poetry had a great power to do good or ill. He believed that works of art should be carefully controlled, sanitized and censored in the interests of public morality and social order. Needless to say, tyrannical regimes, closed societies and authoritarian movements throughout history have agreed.

(I think Socrates wasn't such a good influence on him after all.)

Aristotle's Poetics, on the other hand, isn't all that interested in art as propaganda. He views it as something important for its own sake and instead focuses on what made a particular kind of literary work great.

I think Aristotle won that one. With maybe a few exceptions, works of propaganda make lousy literature. They're not usually even all that effective as propaganda.

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