john_j_enright (john_j_enright) wrote,

Aristotle on morality in music and sculpture

Ayn Rand made various remarks suggesting that artworks in general carry implicit moral messages. These remarks have been criticized by Torres and Kamhi in their book, What Art Is. In their view, "her view of art as the 'concretizaton of the moral ideal' applies only to some literature and to art works in other media which rely on a literary or narrative base.' (p.31)

Of course, that's not what *she* thought.

In this, she had something of an ally in Aristotle. You wouldn't know this from reading Aristotle's Poetics, which is what we usually think of as his big work on an aesthetic topic.

But if you look into his Politics, particularly Book 8, you find he thought that music had definite character-shaping qualities, and that sculpture had some such influence, albeit much milder and not felt by all.

The relevant passage is quoted at the end of this entry. It's not easy reading, particularly if you haven't read much Aristotle before. Of course, that Aristotle said it does not make it so.

"The habit of feeling pleasure or pain at
mere representations is not far removed from the same feeling about
realities; for example, if any one delights in the sight of a statue
for its beauty only, it necessarily follows that the sight of the
original will be pleasant to him. The objects of no other sense,
such as taste or touch, have any resemblance to moral qualities; in
visible objects there is only a little, for there are figures which
are of a moral character, but only to a slight extent, and all do
not participate in the feeling about them. Again, figures and colors
are not imitations, but signs, of moral habits, indications which
the body gives of states of feeling. The connection of them with
morals is slight, but in so far as there is any, young men should be
taught to look, not at the works of Pauson, but at those of
Polygnotus, or any other painter or sculptor who expresses moral
ideas. On the other hand, even in mere melodies there is an
imitation of character, for the musical modes differ essentially
from one another, and those who hear them are differently affected
by each. Some of them make men sad and grave, like the so-called
Mixolydian, others enfeeble the mind, like the relaxed modes, another,
again, produces a moderate and settled temper, which appears to be the
peculiar effect of the Dorian; the Phrygian inspires enthusiasm. The
whole subject has been well treated by philosophical writers on this
branch of education, and they confirm their arguments by facts. The
same principles apply to rhythms; some have a character of rest,
others of motion, and of these latter again, some have a more
vulgar, others a nobler movement. Enough has been said to show that
music has a power of forming the character, and should therefore be
introduced into the education of the young."

From Jowett's translation of the Politics, Book 8, Chapter 5, which is mostly about music. (Note, when discussing Aristotle's works, a "Book" is like a modern chapter and a "Chapter" is like a subsection of a modern chapter.)

2nd rhyme of the day:

Aristotle's say-so does NOT make it so.
But he was called master of all who know.

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