Aristotle, Art & Anguish


Aristotle’s Four Causes.

Aristotle’s four causes are a way of accounting for the existence of anything in the world. We can ask of anything, how did it come to exist? His scheme can best be understood by describing a concrete example.

This is a painting I did a few months ago. It depicts a traumatic experience from my teenage years. It is almost platitudinous to regard creativity as cathartic nowadays. The profession of art therapy is based on such a premise. Let us see if this applies to this object and also if Aristotle’s four causes can account for its existence.

1. Material Cause

This addresses the question, ‘What is the object made of?’

Hardboard, white primer and acrylic paint mixed with water and applied with brushes and cardboard. I also used a penknife to scrape paint off the hardboard once it had dried.

2. Formal Cause

This answers the question, ‘What gives the material its form?’

An artist gives a work a certain form. The painting was based on sketches which experimented with various compositions. The techniques used were the result of many years’ practice and choices were made about colour, shape and so on. I scratched out the dried paint in sections of the picture. Most paintings can conventionally be described as colour, shape and line on some sort of ‘ground’ – hardboard in my case which was cut to a specific size.

3. Efficient Cause

The reason for the object existing.

I started with an idea and memory of a teenage experience. I also had Edvard Munch’s Scream to study. I did not want to appropriate it, or imitate it, but the underlying feelings of anxiety and terror were something I empathised with. The formal composition was my own although I was influenced by Munch’s other pictures where he has a head and shoulders in the foreground.

4. Final Cause

This deals with the ultimate purpose for the object’s existence.

The final cause brings up many associated ideas, some to do with the purpose of art. Does art such as this have to have an audience or could it serve a purpose limited to the artist? Does the picture represent anything in the ‘real world’? Does the ‘real world’ include mental states only experienced by the artist? Are viewers of art able to empathise with emotions which may not be immediately congenial?

My initial motivation was to explore the past, especially the painful aspects of adolescence. I did not know how the painting would turn out before I was well on with it. The interesting thing about creativity is that it is partially conscious and partially subconscious. If you over-plan a painting you will curtail the imaginative aspects of it. Not only did the formal aspects change during the process of painting but the purpose to which I put the painting also changed. Only as I started another similar-themed painting did I realise that I could do a series of four and the last one could be an epiphany. The set of four could even be seen to illustrate the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

Once I’d finished all four I realised there was a website I could submit them to. This final decision shows I wanted an audience for the work. I hoped that viewers could identify with the feelings portrayed. Did I cause it to exist because I wanted to make money? No, but someone else may paint for this reason! Was the process of painting cathartic? Yes, insofar as that to objectify painful feelings is cathartic in itself, as testified by psychotherapy.

Aristotle’s four causes are sound and can be used to explain the existence of most things. The final cause explores abstract notions such as human aspiration, poetry, ethics and ontology. The material cause is more factual and is of interest to art historians, for example, when they want to analyse a painting’s medium or date it accurately.

Aristotle’s View of Art as Imitation

Aristotle’s view of art – admittedly mainly poetry and drama – that it imitates life is set out in his Poetics. Here, for example from chapter V (1)

To imitate is instinctive in man from his infancy. . . All men naturally receive pleasure from imitation. , . .Hence the pleasure they receive from a picture: in viewing it they learn, they infer, they discover what every object is; that this, for example, is an individual man etc.

Of course, Aristotle did not live to see the likes of Edvard Munch (and, anyway, I may be doing him an injustice in selecting this one quote) but it is clear that art-as-imitation is an extreme simplification of what art is about. In my picture there is no physical object in the physical world (apart from in my painting) which looks like the figure, nor is there a two dimensional oblong, unless someone were to trace over my ‘building’ and cut it out, saying, ‘look it does exist in the real world.’ (But then, aren’t they just copying my ‘representation’?) Perhaps the ‘house-object’ and the figure are re-presentations of real three-dimensional objects in the real world? However we regard the painting, the stubborn fact of its existence is that it is a two-dimensional object – causes 1 &2 in Aristotle’s scheme. Is the painting, then, more about communicating feelings? If so, how can patches of pigment adhering to hardboard convey feelings?

We can examine the nuances of this conundrum by quoting from a seminal book about the purpose of art titled, Art and Its Objects by Richard Wollheim:

In the Pitti there is a canvas (of Donna Velata) 85cm x 64cm; in the Museao Nazionale, Florence there is a piece of marble 209cm high. It is with these physical objects that those who claim that the Donna Velata and the St George are physical objects would naturally identify them. . . It can be argued that the work of art has properties incompatible with certain properties that the physical object has; alternatively it can be argued that the work of art has properties which no physical object could have: in neither case could the work of art be the physical object.

We say of the St George that it moves with life. Yet the block of marble is inanimate. Therefore the St George cannot be the block of marble.

Similarly with my painting; someone might say it makes them feel anxious yet the physical object is only pigment and hardboard. The crux of the argument comes down to the painting ‘representing’ something within a convention of aesthetics. The convention of painting is thousands of years old and we accept that the object of art can convey complex truths about the human condition. Today we are over-exposed to imagery and perhaps underestimate its power to move us. (Probably the first cave-paintings were regarded as pure magic!) My own interpretation of the painting will include concrete, subjective details no viewer could possibly have; they are to do with the narrative of my teenage years.

A viewer, however will bring their own experience to bear when looking at the painting. Is the work of art then really a symbiotic collaboration between the physical object and the consciousness of the viewer? In this notion, the viewer brings an active mind to the interpretation of the painting. Hopefully, the colour, contorted lines and subject matter of the painting can convey layered meanings – art is not like mathematics; there is never a cut and dried single meaning. And, also, the experience of looking is more akin to living a life; it is a moment-to- moment experience, and should be an active, imaginative process. People sometimes burst into tears when watching a film or reading a moving poem; this is one response any artist would appreciate from his/her audience. (Of course, we can also be moved to joy, or even laughter, when engaging with art.)

Note: Expressionism is defined as – “a deliberate abandonment of the naturalism implicit in Impressionism in favour of a simplification which should carry far greater emotional impact.” An expressionistic style is able to convey feelings, memories and dreams better than a naturalistic approach or style. It is, therefore, supremely able to suggest inner-worlds and states of consciousness such as joy, shame, sorrow, anxiety and modern alienation.