But then, what about these paintings? What makes them good?
The point is that determining merit is a complicated affair, full of so many variables and contextual complexities that determining any ultimate merit is a relatively futile exercise.
In Greek warfare, if you could throw a spear and it hit somebody, it would be counted as a success. The intention is to hit someone with a spear. The same would not be true of the Olympic games though. A person would throw a spear in the Olympic games too, but if they hit someone it would be counted as a failure – because that is no longer the aim, and no longer what is intended.
Which is right?
Evaluation without Judgement
When it comes to art and literature, we often adopt the view that how we judge the relative merits of a book, or a painting is the right was to judge them. Hopefully though, what we have discovered from this brief exploration is the importance of context. By learning more about the contexts – the attitudes, ideas and realities that shaped the world into which art is made – we can come to a much more balanced evaluation of the work itself.
Things which bend our understanding of reality, are often those which we have the greatest difficulty understanding.
The Mimetic Fallacy
And so finally, we come to our first texts for this module. Ancient English literature, from Beowulf to Gawain, and from Sir Orfeo to King Arthur, is characterised by a distinct absence of the mimetic instinct.
When we read about the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf diving into a pool of water and spending hour after hour there giving battle to a she-demon, or single-handedly defeating a dragon, our instinct is to think how can he hold his breath for so long without drowning?, or but dragon’s don’t really exist!
The mimetic worldview which has dominated English literary culture for so long, is – again in Brewer’s words – “no longer self-evidently the true reality” (Brewer, 1988. pp. 2-3).