“A history of criticism could be written solely on the basis of successive interpretations of salient passages from Aristotle’s 'Poetics'” (11).
Today we tend to think of the work of art in terms of the artist, who, acting through his powers of imagination, willfully brings into being his creation. But this artist-centered interpretation of the text is really a more recent development, first seen in the early nineteenth century. As Abrams demonstrates in the "Orientation of Critical Theories" chapter of his book The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic theory and the Critical Tradition (1953), the dominant modes of thinking about art have, throughout history, been rather different.
From Plato until the late 18th century the artist was thought to play a back-seat role in the creation of art. He was regarded as no more than "a mirror," reflecting nature either as it exists or as it is perfected or enhanced through the mirror. This artist-as-mirror conception remained dominant until the advent of the Romantic era (Abrams sets the date around 1800), when the artist began to make his transformation from “mirror” to “lamp”―- a lamp that actively participates in the object it illuminates.
Literary theory, Abrams holds, can be divided into four categories: mimetic theories, which focus on the relationship between text and universe (by "universe" he means all things of the world apart from audience, text and author); pragmatic theories, which are interested in the relationship between text and audience; expressive theories, which are concerned with the text-author relationship; and objective theories, the most recent classification, which focus on analysis of the text in isolation. Because nothing exists other than universe, text, author and audience, any form of theory must fit into one of these four categories, or be a combination of several.
1. Mimetic Theories
The first category of mimetic theories forms the oldest and is, according to Abrams, the “most primitive” of the four categories. According to this theory, the artist is an imitator of aspects of the observable universe. In The Republic, Plato divides his universe into three realms: the realm of ideas, the realm of particulars, and the realm of reflections of particulars (i.e., art and other "shadows"). The realm of reflections of particulars is the furthest removed from the realm of ideas (i.e., "ultimate truth"), and is therefore the lowest ranking of the three realms. Consequently, its practice, namely, mimetic art, is held in low regard.
Plato's mentor Socrates seemed to agree with Plato's thesis, as he too ranked the third realm― mimetic art― at the bottom. In his famous analogy of the three beds, Socrates refers to the first bed, Bed 1, as the bed of the gods, or of the realm of ideas. Bed 2 is the bed I lie in, the carpenter’s bed, which is the bed of the realm of particulars. Bed 3, the bed in the painting, is a representation of a representation of the ideal bed. Thus, being twice removed from the ideal bed, it is the most "untrue" of the three.
Aristotle points out, however, that the value of Bed 3 (the painter’s bed) is not dependent upon its relation to Bed 1 (the bed of the gods or ideal truth). Art, rather, is independent and should be assessed on its own terms. Aristotle thus frees the text from its relation to the universe to which Plato and Socrates bound it, while still acknowledging the text's imitative relation to universe. Aristotle shows that it is the "manner of imitation" and not the relation to truth which is important in art, and that aesthetic evaluation should be based on the assessment of both the "manner of imitation" and the emotional effect produced in the audience.
2. Pragmatic Theories
The second type of theories are pragmatic theories, which are concerned with the relation between text and audience. According to Abrams, these theories have constituted the dominant mode of analysis from Horace to the early 19th century, and much of its terminology is borrowed from ancient rhetoric.
Horace argued in his Ars Poetica that the three functions of poetry are to teach, to please, and to move. Cicero, the Church Fathers, and the Italian guides all developed a theory of poetry through this reinterpretation of Aristotle, and it was Sir Philip Sydney who in his Apologie for Poetry expanded Aristotle's theories into a specifically didactic theory of poetry. Sydney argues that poets differ from historians in that, unlike historians who deal only with what has been, poets also deal with what may be, and that such moral utopianism is what makes poetry, specifically epic poetry, superior to history.
The 18th-century critics, always itching to extract from specific works some a priori rule, began to prescribe guidelines that they hoped would assist future poets. Dryden dabbles in this sort of rulebook-criticism, explaining certain “universals” for “pleasing” in poetry. Other examples are to be found in the aesthetic “rulebooks” of Richard Hurd and in the writings of Charles Batteux. Samuel Johnson, however, was skeptical of such “rulebooks,” and expressed a mistrust of a priori laws in his work, “A Preface to Shakespeare,” which proved to be a “monumental work of neoclassical criticism.” In it, he praises Shakespeare’s talent for imitation; but, above all, he commends Shakespeare’s ability to “instruct by pleasing.”
Next, it was the psychological introspection of Hobbes and Locke which paved the way for the third, artist-centered approach to the text.
3. Expressive Theories (Two Centuries of the Self)
By 1800, we begin to see “the displacement of mimetic and pragmatic by the expressive view of art,” a phenomenon due in part to the writings of Longinus, Bacon, Wordsworth, and, later, the radical Romantics of the 1830s. With this new “expressive view” of art, the primary duty of the artist was no longer to serve as a mirror reflecting outer things, but instead to externalize the internal, and make one's “inner life” the primary subject of art. The external world, when it does happen to sneak into the work, is expressed only as heavily filtered noumena. It is around this time in the early 19th century that the “mirror,” which had hitherto been the conventional symbol for the artist, becomes the “lamp.”
The danger of such an inward turn is, of course, that it can lead to the cult of subjectivity and emotion, and that the criteria for art is degraded to the reductive: Is the text a sincere, genuine, and accurate reflection of the inner mind of the poet? Such fears are to be realized in later Romantic poetry, much of which abounds in solipsism, bathos, and excessive introspection. The most extreme tenets of Romanticism of this era are perhaps best exemplified in the following assertions made by John Stewart Mills in his Romantic manifestos, “What is Poetry?” (1833) and “The Two Kinds of Poetry.” Mills upturns the old ranking as laid down by Aristotle, arguing that: the lyrical form usurps the dramatic; spontaneity is far more valuable than form or conceit; imitation of the external world is not important (rather, the external world is merely a tool used to express the internal state of mind of the poet); and finally, the presence of an audience is entirely unnecessary.
To give an overview of the evolution of Western aesthetics up to this point, Abrams provides the following rough timeline. In the age of Plato and Aristotle, poets were mimetic poets, and their personal roles and intrusions were kept to a minimum. In the Hellenistic and Roman eras, poets were pragmatic, and they sought to satisfy the public, abide by the rules of decorum, and apply techniques borrowed from rhetoric. From 1800 to 1900, poets, specifically those of England and Germany, were triumphant and self-affirming figures whose task was to express to the world their inner genius. Finally, from the early 1900s through the present, the objective theories, such as those expounded by T.S. Eliot, the New Critics and others, have been most prominent. (Abram's last point, however, seems debatable given the fact of the New Critics' decline in the second half of the 20th century.)
4. Objective Theories
Though extremely rare in pre-20th-century history, this fourth alternative― to view the text in isolation― has been the dominant mode for criticism for at least half of the 20th century. Proponents of this theory trace its origins to the central section of Aristotle’s Poetics, where tragedy is regarded as an object in itself, and where the work's internal elements (plot, character, thought, diction, melody and spectacle, in order of importance) are described as working together in perfect unison to produce in the audience a “catharsis” of pity and fear. The important point, the objective theorists point out, is that these qualities are treated by Aristotle as inherent in the work itself, and that the work is praised to the extent that these internal elements work together cohesively. Still, some might counter that Aristotle’s Poetics, with its careful attention paid to the effect produced upon the audience, in fact more closely fits the criteria of the pragmatic theories than of the objective theories.
As translations into Latin were scarce, Aristotle’s influence disappeared for centuries until the Renaissance, when we see the reemergence of his ideas in new forms. Yet it is not until the 1780s in Germany that we see a significant objective theory brought forth. During this period from 1780-1820, and in large part as a consequence of Kant’s writings, an “art-for-art’s-sake” movement begins to emerge. Under this new this new theory, the poem came to be considered a “heterocosm” which functions independently and according to its own set of rules. But it is not until the first half of the 20th century― with its High Modernism, Chicago Neo-Aristotelianism, and other schools― that this art-for-art's-sake movement would place the objective theories in a position of ascendancy over the other critical orientations.