Like his ethics and political philosophy, aesthetics is seen by Aristotle as a practical art, concerned more with action than with theorizing. The core of his aesthetic theory can be found in two books: his Rhetoric and Poetics. He spells out his actual theory of art in the Poetics, writing that all art is imitation. The purpose of art is to stimulate man's emotions in such a manner that he will be able to find release from emotional stress and regain his poise and serenity.

Similarly, even amusements and recreational activities are imitative arts, releasing pent-up pressures which put a strain upon the soul. Aristotle called this relaxation catharsis, a purification of the soul by relieving or healing it or its intense passions. In this way, it is hoped that all the intense feelings become relaxed. Were Aristotle alive today, he would argue that sporting events such as soccer matches, boxing, and football have value for spectators, because they experience an emotional release.

Do violent sporting events always provide a catharsis, or purging for spectators?

Aristotle thought that the purification spectators felt during tragedies purged or purified them by relieving intense passions. But evidence shows that this is not always so at sporting events, where fans sometimes riot in the grandstands and in the streets before and after games.

Art as Imitation: Plato and Aristotle

Aristotle accepts that art is imitation. The visual arts like paintings and sculptures mimic objects like beautiful buildings or religious figures. It is the artist's job to copy the essence or form rather than the individual object as such. In so doing the artist idealizes the subject matter rather than simply making a direct copy.

Plato would agree with Aristotle that art is imitative. But that is where the agreement ends. For Plato, art is not only a copy of reality, but an inferior copy. The form of David in Michelangelo's status is several levels away from the form David. The marble statue is an entity once removed from the actual man. The actual David is in turn once removed from the ideal man. So Plato maintained that art was thrice removed from what is real. It is ontologically inferior to the world of forms.

Because Aristotle disagreed with Plato on the location of the forms, he didn't accept Plato's conclusion about the inferior imitative nature of art. The form, or essence, of David is captured by the artist and is married to the material marble. The watercolor of the Empire State Building that Plato would protest against might capture the essence of the majestic skyscraper, according to Aristotle.

Aristotle thought that tragedy was imitative, too. Tragedy imitates serious events, often events of life and death, by employing beautiful language. Music, painting, and poetry are similar forms of artistic expression. Whereas Plato thought that these art forms engaged the emotions of the viewers and corrupted their appreciation of the truth, Aristotle thought that tragedy was cathartic. The audience identifies with the characters through sympathy and thereby relieves their fear and grief over the tragic events. The playgoer, liberated from such intense emotions, regains his tranquility.

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