Fantasy Versus Imagination

Continuing my discussion of English philosopher Roger Scruton’s cultural writings are some comments on the role of ethics in art. According to Scruton’s aesthetic theory—dealing with the themes of “fantasy and imagination” developed in his earlier essays—the “abstracting” nature of art and drama is often overlooked. This touches on an essential problem with modern entertainment. Drama is not meant to present a graphically realistic depiction of ordinary human actions.

The imagination, governed as it is by a sense of reality, seeks condensation, suggestion, dramatic completeness. The absolute realization of specific scenes is no part of the imaginative purpose, which is better served by convention than explicit imagery. But although imagination is, in this way, informed by a sense of reality, it need not represent the world as it is.

The imagination should “re-present” the real world in a creative, albeit fundamentally believable or coherent, manner. By contrast, Scruton considers “fantasy” to be mindless and frequently degrading. (By that he means not the tales of J.R.R. Tolkien, but what we would call “fantasizing.”)  “For it begins from the premise of a given emotion, which it can neither improve nor criticize but only feed.” This explains why we can enjoy classic tragedies dealing with events like crime, war or infidelity that would normally be repulsive. The last few decades, however, have seen cinematic performance fixated on the banal. I’d add that drama has been turned into documentary and, almost as bad, documentary turned into drama.

Scruton objects not only to the crudeness of “grunting sexuality” but to the pornography of violence. Such exhibitions attract audiences like those of the Roman arena rather than the Greek theater. The ethical aim of poetry and drama, as originally enunciated by Aristotle, has been betrayed and replaced by the spectacle.

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