The Aristotelian Argument for Animation

I’ve touched on why I like animation before, but I’ve been wanting to expand a little on why animation is particularly worth following, even if it’s less accomplished than other media (e.g., literature or painting). In particular, I find myself returning to near the end of the Poetics, where Aristotle considers whether tragedy is superior to epic poetry. He answers “yes,” in part because tragedy can use any of the same techniques as epic, right down to using the same poetic metre. This puts them on equal terms, but tragedy also has “a substantial role for music and spectacle, which engender the most vivid pleasure.” Aristotle stresses this vividness, and I’ll add that this vividness works to enhance whatever effect an artist wishes to impress on his audience, whether that be a feeling of horror, comedy, and so on.

This argument in favour of tragedy also applies to animation, which possesses most of the same tools available to other arts, e.g. live-action film, comics, and literature, but in addition is capable of a level of spectacle that no other form can match.

I can imagine this argument as something of a party trick, assuming your party is attended mainly by literature or philosophy nerds. How far can one take this argument, though? Does it really prove that cartoons are superior to, say, poetry?

Well, it may demonstrate that animation is potentially a great medium, but “by their fruits you shall know them,” right? If animation truly is at least the equal of, if not superior to, other well-established media, we should expect to see some works that can at least equal the Messiah or The Waste Land or whatever.

Here we run into a problem, though. Animation has only existed for a century or so, and has never been produced in anywhere near same quantity as any other major art. Music, literature, and the visual arts are at least as old as civilisation itself, and were already highly refined well before even Aristotle’s time. As far as I’m aware, even live-action film, the most popular art of the past few generations, has yet to produce a Homer or Dante. The best I can do is point to cases like Akira or Neon Genesis Evangelion, which indicate that animation is progressing towards those heights, and if it continues to develop may well equal its big brothers generations from now.

So for now, who can say where animation stands in the artistic pantheon? As things stand, I suppose I’d argue for literature, and poetry in particular, as the highest art form, but I can’t help but consider animation to at least be the most interesting medium, even if only for its spectacle and potential.


  1. The Kenosha Kid

    And see, this is why I often wonder about the sheer mostly-unused potential of videogames, of all things—you can incorporate prose or film, but do so much more besides. The flipside, of course, is that you’d have to incorporate these well, but I frankly don’t feel that happens often enough. And it’s an even younger medium. Oh well.

    The counterargument to all this, I suppose, would be those quotes (the main one that comes to mind is an Orson Welles one) about how necessary limitations are for real artistic creativity: most often I see it applied to the need to work around logistical problems, but there’s no reason you couldn’t use it for talking about a medium’s set boundaries. And now that I think of it, that makes a pretty good argument for poetry.

    • Cheshire_Ocelot

      This line of argument certainly applies to video games, as well, and there are games that are genuinely beautiful in visuals and sound. Their main problem from an artistic point of view is that they’re primarily, well, games, which makes narrative extraordinarily difficult. Balancing story and gameplay can and has been done, of course, but it’s an extra obstacle that, say, a novelist or filmmaker doesn’t have to deal with.

      Thanks for bringing up the value of limitations; I actually hadn’t considered that angle. In poetry, formal verse is easier to write well, and is on average better than, free verse. On the other hand, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound wrote the best poems of the century in free verse. Perhaps inherent limitations raise the average quality of work in a medium, but more freedom allows the greatest artists to do their best work? Something for a future post, perhaps…

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