Art has nothing to do with me. Or my family. Or anybody I know.—Jules Feiffer, New York Times (October 13, 1997)
After Modernism, mentioning the term imitation in the context of art or art appreciation, in a manner that is not pejorative, is almost unacceptable.1 On the other hand, imitation is, without a doubt, a guiding principle in acquiring artistic skills—as seen in any basic drawing class. Furthermore, in what we may label as the layman's conception of art, imitation plays a crucial role even today. What, then, are we to say about imitation and art?
In considering an answer, we have to start with Plato, for imitation plays a crucial role in Plato's metaphysics. The partaking relation said to hold between objects and their Platonic forms is also one of imitation: the object imitates or attempts to become its relevant form; it strives to be yet falls short of its Platonic form. Another use of imitation that Plato considers is that of the making of replicas or duplicates, for example, the work of a carpenter who reproduces a series of chairs in accordance with some fixed pattern. Imitation in the first sense, that of the object striving to its form, is of significance and carries with it the grains of true knowledge. The second use is clearly of practical significance. However, the third Platonic use of imitation, its place in the arts, earns none of the acclaims the former two do. Art, according to Plato, imitates ordinary objects; it is not an attempt at imitating forms, nor is it the craftsman's reproduction of useful tools. The painted table does not aim at the idea or the form of a table, neither is it a useful table fitted for a [End Page 20] family's dinner gathering. At most, if successfully executed, it deludes the spectator into believing he or she is encountering a table. It is at this point, when art assumes the role of the remaking of illusory imitations, that it gets its (notoriously) degraded status in Plato's writings.
With Aristotle we see a move that, for reasons explained later, could be labeled as Modernist. For here Platonic forms are deprived of their transcendent status. Aristotle instead locates them in concrete reality. A particular object is not something that strives but falls short of a form; it is a raw piece of matter (a formless substance) that takes or "dresses up" with a form. Change and contingency in nature are the processes by which substance strips itself of old forms and takes on new ones. This is where the Aristotelian theory of necessity and contingency enters the scene. A particular object (or phenomenon) can go through a change of form without losing its identity (for example, an individual who dyes her hair); its essence, or the sum total of properties that constitute that which it is, is left intact. On the other hand, there are changes in form that would certainly change the identity of the object in question. A piece of wood that is burned loses its identity qua being a piece of wood. It does not, however, disappear. According to Aristotle, there is a conservation of substance. Substance does not fade away; rather it changes its form. Since in the case of the burning wood, essential properties (forms that constitute the essence of wood-ness) are altered, the object ceases to be a piece of wood and it becomes something else. It takes on a different form or essence.
That which traces the notion of essence (and necessity) to that of form is a major philosophical move that constitutes a thread running all through the history of Western culture. It enabled imitation, and art as a whole, to gain the respect that Plato had denied it. In this new Aristotelian climate, imitation was the operation of capturing or imitating essence. Imitating essence would become the process by...