In an early section of the Poetics, Aristotle notes the curious fact that humans take pleasure in looking at images of things they would find painful to contemplate as actual objects or scenes. The philosopher is working toward an account of tragedy that explains why people go to the theater to watch kings tear out their eyes and mothers murder their children. Before he gets to the plays, Aristotle considers the satisfaction we get from examining pictures “of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies” (he seems to be thinking of anatomy books). Why do we like looking at things like that?
It is because of the delight we take in learning, Aristotle says. Looking at images or portraits, we take pleasure in recognizing someone: “Ah, that is he” (or, in another translation, “The man there is so-and-so”). It is through such acts of recognition, what the Greeks called anagnorisis, that we pass from ignorance to knowledge. Not coincidently, this is the same transformation Oedipus goes through at the end of Sophocles’ tragedy, which Aristotle particularly admired. In this case, the act of anagnorisis is one of self-recognition. The king, searching for the murderer of his father, discovers that it was himself, that the criminal and detective are one: “Ah, he is me.”
A variant of Aristotle’s question might be posed about the depiction of ruins, those images or verbal evocations of half-collapsed buildings and crumbling masonry that form such a durable theme in art history. Why is it, Susan Stewart asks in her deeply researched and gracefully written book The Ruins Lesson, that “we so often are drawn—in schadenfreude, terror, or what we imagine is transcendence—to the sight of what is broken, damaged, and decayed”?
At the beginning of her study, Stewart points us toward the writings of the German art historian Alois Riegl, whose essay “The Modern Cult of Monuments” (1903) is a founding text in the field of historical preservation. Riegl distinguished between a work’s “historical value,” a function of its origin in a unique time and place (e.g., the Italian Renaissance), and the work’s “age value,” arising from its ability to give the viewer a visceral sense of time’s passage. Riegl argued that age value, found in such phenomena as erosion, staining, or fragmentation, was made possible by a peculiarly modern appreciation for the organic nature of the artwork, its cycle of emergence and deterioration. “Modern man recognizes part of his own life in a monument,” Riegl wrote. “The modern viewer of old monuments receives aesthetic satisfaction not from the stasis of preservation but from the continuous and unceasing cycle of change in nature.”
Riegl’s argument is a version of Aristotle’s. Part of…
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