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Imitational Theory of Art

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by John Bourne

The theory that art involves some form of imitation originated with the ancient Greeks, particularly with Plato.

As Cynthia Freeland writes in "But is it Art?":
" Plato (427-347 BCE) discussed art forms like tragedy, along with sculpture, painting, pottery and architecture, not as 'art' but as 'techne' or skilled craft. He regarded them all as instances of 'mimesis' or imitation. Plato criticised all imitations, including tragedies, for failing to depict the eternal ideal realities ('Forms' or 'Ideas'). Instead they offered mere imitations of things in our world, which themselves were copies of the Ideas."
She goes on to portray how persistent was the theory of art as "an imitation of nature or of human life and action". She also cites E.H. Gombrich describing the history of Western art (mainly painting) as " a search for progressively more vivid renderings of reality. "

Until the end of the C18th, theories of art were predominantly variations of Plato's imitation theory , seeing art as the imitation of beauty in nature.But the rise of Romanticism in the C19th progressively emphasised the expression of the artist's feelings and there was a corresponding decrease in emphasis on imitation. Additionally, the advent of photography in the middle part of the C19th was also to change the practice of art radically since the ability to take photographs devastated the market for traditional portrait painters as well as for topographical landscape artists.

A problem with imitative theories is that their coverage appears limited, that is, they work well for portraits by Reynolds or landscapes by Constable but less well for say the expressionist works of Edvard Munch. As Anthony Harrison-Barbet writes in "Mastering Philosophy" :
"......there have been very many artists who would explicitly deny that their work is intended to be imitative of a 'visible' reality in any sense at all, but who claimed to be penetrating to the subconscious mind (Surrealism) or to be re-defining the real (as in Expressionism and Abstractionism)."
It can be observed though that there is a continuing strong adherence by the general public to art which does in some way imitate nature or human life and action. Unwelcome as it may be for some contemporary artists to acknowledge, it is normal for ordinary people to expect artists to address the most important realities of their lives in an imitational way which they can readily assimilate. To the ordinary person, visible reality and visible humanity are the "stuff" of their daily lives and the world in which they feel their spirituality is rooted. An art which wilfully sets out to have no dealing with this "stuff" cannot therefore speak meaningfully to the majority of the public and becomes instead some kind of mutual back-scratching amongst a self-regarding, "artistic" clique.

This is not a belief that all art should revert to "mere" imitation or a meaningless type of photographic style but it is a strong belief that some form of "imitation of nature or human life and action" should be employed by artists. Imitation has been an important part of art for millennia and "visible reality" continues to be considered an important keystone of art by the general public.

Of course, the fact that so many continue to support the cause of "imitation", in one form or another, does not make "imitation" a fully definitive theory of art. However, by the same argument, neither do the claims of fewer Conceptual artists over a much shorter period stand justified as a proper definition of art.

On balance it seems to me that the practice of Conceptualists of ignoring "imitation" in favour of ready-mades deprives art of a lot more than it gives to it. Even worse it deprives the general audience, without whose engagement art becomes a mere sideshow, of an important "way in" to art.

Another way to look at it is that the Readymade item is the ultimate in imitation! For ready-made items are even more like the real thing than photographs...... for, after all, they are the real thing. There are consequently good grounds for arguing that Readymade items are even more redundent artistically than photographs.

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