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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 16, No. 1, 2017
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Robert J. Lewis
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Nick Catalano
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Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able
to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Aristotle's Poetics is the oldest, the most famous, and the most debated essay on the art of writing and aesthetic creativity. The great philosopher's definition of tragedy has been memorized by students, his analysis of drama heralded by academics, and his insight into comedy assiduously studied by contemporary stand-up comics.

Aristotle’s comparison of ‘poetry’ and ‘history’ is pivotal in any analysis of contemporary art forms. Ever since his writings were recovered from Averoes's Arabic translations of the original Greek and translated into Latin and other European languages, debates have ensued over some of his terms. The most controversial is the squabble over the meaning of catharsis (kátharsi) which most agree is best translated as ‘purgation’ or ‘cleansing.’ For our purposes ‘poetry’ is best understood as meaning the entire gamut of dramatic writing -- not only the tragedies and comedies of yore but modern versions of ancient forms such as film and TV. It seems safe to conclude that the Stagirean master would nod in agreement that far into the future, our contemporary film and television writing would fit comfortably into his term ‘poetry.’ And he would similarly agree that ‘history’ could apply to any future objective analytical writing such as newspapers, television journalism, as well as college textbooks.

The key to understanding the significant implications of Aristotle's comparison comes in his own words uttered thousands of years ago: "Poetry is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular." (trans. S. H. Butcher). It is the term ‘universal’ that begs our attention. The philosopher continues "By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims . . ."

So we may safely interpret his thoughts to mean that the exclusive focus on just the facts of an event always fails to capture the myriad complexities (emotional, imaginative, sensuous, psychological) that truly cover the entire reality of its occurrence.

In selecting Sophocles's Oedipus tragedy as an ideal creation Aristotle insists that the ‘poetry’ utilized to portray a given reality must be great. The creator must be able to harness all of the elements of his craft in order to give us an accurate (according to probability and necessity) complete (emotion, imagination, sensuous, psychological awareness) and compelling experience of the reality in question. And when he uses the term "of a certain magnitude" we may conclude from his thinking (as many scholars have done) that, all things considered, the more epical and universal the theme of a work may be, the greater its artistic merit.

In Oedipus, Sophocles tackles the theme of appearance vs. reality, one of the most problematic struggles in human society. In order to understand and appreciate the scope of the conflict the audience must encounter all of the elements involved: the irony of being sure of something (Oedipus's assumption of Polybus and Merope as his real parents) when the opposite is the actual reality; the Shepherd ironically saving him from death on Mt. Cithaeron, Oedipus unknowingly killing his real father, Oedipus well-meaningly marrying his own mother, and his tragedy finally being uncovered only because Oedipus has a brilliant, focused intellect and a heroic determinism. The irony and scope of the play can only be totally experienced when the audience's intellects perceive it, when their emotions grasp it, when their senses feel it, when their imaginations divine it and when their psyches behold it. As Aristotle explains, Sophocles is a great artist because has eminently managed with his artistic tools to draw upon these many agents of human awareness needed for the complete experience of this epical theme.

Familial conflicts are another theme that humans must struggle with. In Hamlet and King Lear, Shakespeare enables us to experience the range and nature of elements involved in the struggle as no compilation of historic, scientific psycho-social writing could ever do. The cathartic awareness that we experience when we see the protagonists wrestle with familial injuries, hurtful betrayals, suicidal yearnings, thwarted loves, and violent urges all rendered with the power of Shakespeare's mastery of dramatic tools urges us to re-experience these great art plays again and again. When we do so we revisit our own frustrations and yearnings about those we hold dear. The plays engage us in a comprehensive depth and scope of reality that no factual analysis such as this essay that I am writing could ever do.

In these plays there are obviously many other issues and themes that gain our empathy too numerous to discuss here. But it is important always to keep in mind a key element of Aristotle's famous definition of tragic drama namely that it must be "of a certain magnitude" -- the poetry must always contain a theme which is crucial to human nature and society. And, as we said previously, if it is masterfully constructed, it can then be cherished as a meaningful work of art.

Film is a modern version of the poetry that Aristotle spoke of and he would certainly have welcomed its great ability to communicate a vast array of experiences. He adds another essential point to the aforementioned quote: "It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened but what may happen - what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity." Film critics need to keep these sagacious words in mind. If we follow Aristotle's thinking we can perceive a big aesthetic difference between films such as "The Gladiator" and "The Martian."

"The Gladiator" tells us that Marcus Aurelius was murdered by his son, that Commodus was a deviate, and that the Roman republic was saved by Maximus, the former general forced into gladiatorial combat. These ‘facts’ are untrue and further, such a hero as Maximus never existed. The film fails totally according to probability and necessity and remains simply a gory replication of violence in the Colosseum. “The Martian" however organizes an adventure story around an impressive array of verifiable scientific data; it introduces the audience to the ingenious, sometimes dorky, scientists and engineers at JPL; it permits us to view a detailed geography of Mars; it enables us to experience the climatological and gravitational oddities of the planet; it lets us experience the imaginative wonder and astounding presentment of the human race on a planet 50 million miles away; and it gives us an exciting preview of an epical event that will, without a doubt, one day occur -- the exploration of the Red Planet.

Thousands of pages have been written about the sinking of the Titanic. A hundred years later a recent report of the ‘facts’ claims that a coal fire in the bilge was yet another element involved. Facts have been chronicled in hundreds of books about the tragedy. But James Cameron's epic film gives us the entire gamut of experiences of this tragic event as to what might have happened according to probability and necessity: the emotional stresses of all classes of passengers, both the heroic and cowardly behaviour of crew members, the imaginative struggles of people in love, the circumstantial ironies of dozens who sailed or didn't sail for a host of different reasons, the economic and psychological motivations of owners and senior officers, the physical horror of a freezing Atlantic Ocean, the impossibly tactile experience of a huge liner shattering at its beam before it sinks. These experiences interact with the minds and imaginations of the audience rendering a depth of insight into the endless physical, emotional, imaginative, psychological complexity of the event in a way no history book could produce.

At a time when ‘fake news’ distracts our perceptions, and when variegated interpretations of truth emanate from biased news sources, it becomes all important, especially for younger thinkers, to inhale and absorb the centuries proven sources of truth and meaning that great creative ‘poetry’ can bring. The challenge is to discover where the greatness lies and how we can gain understanding and assurance of its merit. Surprisingly, only a few well tested guides can often suffice and for those we can always rely on the wisdom of Aristotle.


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Henry Steiner, Municipal Historian, Sleepy Hollow
Dr. Catalano: This is an important column. It provides a refreshing enlightenment of the challenges that confront Americans. Thank you.
Once again-- an insightful mind expander! Wonderfully written and sheds light on so many issues in our lives.

By Nick Catalano:
The Maw of Deregulated Capitalism
Demagogues: The Rhetoric of Barbarism
The Guns of August
Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue
Manon Lescaut @The Met
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


Help Haiti
Film Ratings at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
2016 Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal, Oct. 05-16st, (514) 844-2172
Montreal World Film Festival
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