What Is Literature?


What is the classical view of literature and art? In his book The Mirror and the Lamp, M. H. Abrams observed that art could be viewed from four different perspectives: First there is the emphasis on the universe of art, that is, the thing or idea the work is about, its subject; for example, Mona Lisa herself. Second, there is the audience for the work of art—those for whom it was painted, or written or sculpted; for example, us when we go to the museum and see the Mona Lisa. Third, there is the artist who produced the work; for example, Leonardo da Vinci himself. And finally, there is the artistic work itself; for example, da Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa. The universe, the audience, the artist, and the work: These are the four elements of art.

Abrams’ delineation of these elements roughly parallels Aristotle’s Four Causes:

  1. Formal Cause: What kind of thing it is, its pattern (the universe—the thing or idea the work is about)
  2. Final Cause: What the thing is for (the audience and its aesthetic pleasure)
  3. Efficient Cause: What produced the thing (the artist who produced the work)
  4. Material Cause: What a thing consists of (the work itself)

The Pragmatic View

Abrams calls the view of art that emphasizes the effect of a work on an audience the pragmatic view of art. The most notable advocate for the pragmatic view of art was Philip Sidney (1554-1586). Under this view, the purpose of art is to teach and delight the audience. Poets, he argues, do not imitate “what is, hath been, or shall be,” but rather “what may be and should be.” Art, therefore, should be judged by how effectively the delight it brings leads the audience to moral truth. This results in an emphasis on the rules and principles by which its moral effect can be produced—an emphasis on the “how to” of art.

The pragmatic view of art took hold in the sixteenth century and was the dominant view of art in the Western world until the early nineteenth century.

The Expressive View

The view that displaced the pragmatic view was the expressive view of art. Under this view, it is not the effect on the audience that is primary, but the artist himself. Art is primarily the expression of the feelings of the artist. It is the internal sentiments of the artist made external in the work of art. Under the expressive view it is the spontaneity of the artist that is all important.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) attempts to do this in his poetry, as do Keats and Shelley. The philosopher John Stuart Mill explicitly advocates this view: Poetry is the uttering forth of feeling.

The Objective View

The expressive view of literature and art was largely overtaken in the mid-to-late twentieth century by the objective theory of art. This view advocates that the work of art should be considered on its own merits—not in light of the effect on its audience (which its advocates call the “affective fallacy”) or the feelings of the artist (which it calls the “intentional fallacy”). The nature and value of art lies in the work itself. Nothing extraneous should be considered other than the poem, the story, the painting, or the sculpture.

This view became dominant in another form in English and American literature in the mid-to-late twentieth century with the rise of the New Criticism. Figures such as Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks popularized this view with their popular mid-twentieth-century English textbooks.

The Mimetic View

The other view of literature and art is the original, or classical, view. The mimetic view of art focuses on the universe we mentioned above. Art is fundamentally the imitation either of the divine essences (according to Plato) or things themselves (according to Aristotle). In this view—the original view of art—the artist, the audience, and the work itself all play important roles, but they are all oriented toward the conformity of the work with the universe. The purpose of art is to aesthetically represent what is.

The most representative expression of this view is Aristotle’s Poetics, which held sway among literary critics until about the time of Sidney in the sixteenth century.

The Postmodern View

The postmodern view of art and literature subverts all four views by questioning the traditional, logocentric basis of thought that produced them. Philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) questioned the dichotomy between the objective and the subjective. Later figures such as Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) questioned all dichotomies. As postmodernism asserted itself in academia in the late twentieth century, it was allowed to question the most fundamental assumptions and values of art and literature.

In the postmodern view, literature is to be “deconstructed” by the critic, who questions the seemingly self-evident motives of the author and apparent assertions of the text. The critic can read his own ideas into the text, ideas that are allowed to have equal standing with those of the author. This becomes possible because of the postmodern rejection of any kind of hierarchy in reality, including that of truth. Postmodernism questions the basic tenet of classical logocentrism, which is the possibility of the conformity of the work with reality.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The question postmodernism raises is whether anything we say or write or create can have anything to do with the world as it really is. The assumption that art cannot represent reality does not only undermine traditional criticism, it undermines postmodernism itself. One reason to reject postmodernism is that, if it is true, we wouldn’t even be able to discuss whether to reject it or whether it is true because it rejects the very idea of truth. The more pressing question for us, therefore, is which of the traditional views we should go back to.

The problem with most schools of thought on art and literature is that they are reductive. The pragmatic view reduces art to the reaction of the audience, the expressivist view to the feelings of the artist, and the objective view to the work of art by itself outside of any context.

It could be argued that the mimetic view, too, is reductive, since it emphasizes one of the four elements of art (universe over art, artist, and audience). Of these elements, the universe is the most essential. The artist could exist without the work, and the audience without the work—the work could even exist apart from the artist and the audience. Things other than art can express the feelings of a person, and things other than art can please people, but only art does these things through imitation. If art did not imitate something, then it wouldn’t be art at all.

In addition, imitation can achieve the stated goals of the other views in a way they themselves do not: The less art imitates something, the less it seems to please people (witness the unpopularity of so-called “public art,” which many times imitates nothing), and the less art imitates something, the less it seems to fully capture the feelings of the artist (which cannot be captured in any non-concrete way).

The world or universe is the only one of the four elements of art that can meaningfully act as the ordering principle for all the rest—although it needs the rest in order to perform its artistic function. If there is to be an emphasis and an ordering principle to art and literature, it should be that thing without which it would not be art, and this is imitation, the element of art that lies at the heart of the classical view.

The world or universe is the only one of the four elements of art that can meaningfully act as the ordering principle for all the rest.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2015 edition.

Leave a Reply

Skip to content