Structure of Poetic Competition in 5th-Century Athens

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From fifth-century Athens to modern liberal democracies, the dominant form of competition among public works has shifted from competition for acclaim to competition for attention. This important shift has not been well-recognized. Art has been described as “being normally made or performed for an audience.”^ Whether a work of art must acquire an audience (competition for attention) or seeks to please an audience institutionally presented to it (competition for acclaim) has important implications for art. Tragedy and comedy has been analyzed in terms of the evolutionary psychology of competition for attention.^ However, persons in the fifth-century Athens did not experience competition for attention in festival presentations of tragedies. The program of performances was set in advance for the city.

Plato’s view of poetry has been misunderstood apart from the context of competition for acclaim in fifth-century Athens. A scholar noted:

Plato thought that drama is bound to promote emotion over reason, because artists would have to pander to the emotions of the untutored masses if they were to have audiences at all.^

To the contrary, an artist (poet) in fifth-century Athens was guaranteed a large audience by virtue of being designated to present a chorus at a civic festival. Plato’s claims about drama seeking an audience are best understood as drama seeking a place ab initio in an imaginary polis. Institutions of poetic competition were well-developed in fifth-century Athens. Fifth-century Athens was not an imaginary polis.

Scholars have argued vociferously about the relative importance of performance and symbolic artifacts of poetic works in fifth-century Athens.^ ^ Circulation of poetic texts of comedies and tragedies probably was highly dependent on acclaim in performances at city festivals. Even with competition for attention to circulating texts in fifth-century Athens, competition for acclaim at civic festivals was almost surely the dominant form of symbolic competition.

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