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Imitation In Art

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


Why cannot and why should not a work of art be equally successful in imitation and in expression, in execution and in purpose ?—there is no reason except that the most of us are narrow in our aims and sympathies, and prefer to have our art as contracted and one-sided as ourselves. But this is not the spirit that will ever lead to the development of great art. It may foster the mechanical school, where everything runs to line, and the impressionist, where everything runs to color, but it will not always blend both lines and colors sufficiently to produce even satisfactory form, and it will never make this form an inspiring presence by infusing into it the vitality of that thought and feeling which alone can entitle it to be a work of the humanities.-Art in Theory, III.


Imitation without reference to that which underlies the method, or has to do with the end which it is desired to attain, always arises from a condition in which the tendency to activity on the part of the imitator is in excess of that which needs to be expended, or which, in the circumstances, can be expended, upon gaining what is really necessary for the supply of material wants. The young cannot realize the need of expending it upon these, nor do they know how and where to expend it thus. Therefore they play, and the form of their play is imitative. Their elders, on the contrary, realize that they must work; and they have learned how and where to do it. Therefore they seldom play, having neither the time nor the inclination for it. But that which causes indulgence in play in any case is excess of life-force which, if it cannot be expended in obtaining that which is needful for the supply of material wants, must be expended in other directions.—Idem, VII.


Imagine a gardener classifying his roses—as he must do instinctively the moment that he has to deal with any large number of them—and obtaining thus a general conception of the flower. Then imagine him trying in some artificial way to produce a single rose embodying this conception. This rose will very likely resemble some one rose particularly present to his mind while forming it; yet, probably, because, before starting with his work, he has obtained a conception of roses in general, his product will manifest some rose-like qualities not possessed by the specimen before him, but suggested by others. That is to say, because of his general conception derived from classifying, he does more than imitate—he represents in that which is a copy of one rose ideas derived from many roses. The same principle applies to all works of art. Let a man write a story or paint a picture. In nine cases out of ten in the exact degree in which he has observed and classified many like events or scenes, he will add to his pro-duct the results of his own thinking or generalizing. In fact, it is a question whether the chief charm of such works is not imparted by the introduction into them, in legitimate ways, of these kinds of generalizations having their sources not in the particular things described, but in the brains of the describers, who have already been made familiar with many other things somewhat similar. Shakespeare certainly did not get the most attractive features of his historical plays from history, nor Turner those of his pictures from nature. So, as a rule, even in the most imitative of works, the really great artist, consciously or unconsciously, gives form to conceptions that he has derived from an acquaintance with many other objects of the same class as those imitated.—The Genesis of Art-Form, I.


The general result of emphasizing unduly the imitative side of aesthetics is to lead men to consider art merely a reproduction of reality as manifested in form, and not to consider it, in any important sense, a representation of ideality, or an expression of human thought and feeling. Is there anything in Aristotle's conception of art as imitation to justify a deduction that he did not consider it to be an expression of human thought and feeling?—Strange as it may appear to some, nothing whatever. His own explanation of what he meant by imitation or mimicry includes all that most idealists would desire to have included in the conception of that which art should do. "Homer," says Aristotle (Chap. 2), "imitates better men than exist," and again, in Chap. 25, "the poet," he says, "being an imitator, like the painter or any other artist, must, of necessity, always imitate one of three things,—either such as they were or are; or such as they are said to be or appear to be; or such as they ought to be" (Thomas Taylor's translation). . . . In art, imitation or imaging is a means not an end,—a means of representing through accurate imitations or images of external objects that which is, or appears to be, or ought to be. This seems to be the only fair interpretation to be put upon Aristotle's word; and this interpretation reveals at once the depth and the comprehensiveness of his aesthetic insight. Art in Theory, Appendix III.


It is hard enough to produce a work of art which is natural, when one models directly from nature. It is well-nigh impossible to do so, when one models merely or mainly from that which another man, however accurate his eye, has seen in nature. The work of the imitator will be as much inferior to the work of art after which he models, as the latter is to nature's original.—Art in Theory,


The aim of high art is never mere imitation; and the truth of the statement is nowhere exemplified more clearly than when applied to the use of color. Merely because blue in the natural spectrum stands between green and purple, is no proof, as we shall find by-and-by, that a blue object should be represented in a painting as standing next to one that is green or violet. In the natural spectrum, as in a natural scene, bounded by only the horizon, there are other counteracting, balancing, or complementary influences of color, which may render an effect entirely different from that which alone is possible where a few colors are introduced into the narrow limits of a picture. Besides this, the mere association of certain hues in nature does not make the arrangement beautiful; and, if not, art has no business to reproduce it. For both reasons, it must always be borne in mind that art deals with selected colors, just as poetry and music deal with selected tones; and harmony in all these arts, though discovered from a study of principles in nature, is distinctively a human invention.—Proportion and Harmony of Line and Color, XVII.

Art is the work of a man possessing more than merely physical senses. The reason why he desires at all to construct an art-form is because natural forms have produced an effect upon his mind. And it is this effect that he wishes to reproduce. If he can do it by mere imitation, well and good; but there are many cases in which he cannot do it thus. Yet even then, even in poetry, in which . . . the imitative element is often very slight, who can fail to perceive that, as in the "Voices of the Night" of Longfellow, or the tragedies of Shakespeare, the effects of nature upon the mind may be reproduced; that the reader or hearer feels sad or joyous, weeps or laughs, precisely as he would, were he, in natural life, to experience the actual moods or perceive the actual events imaginatively presented to his contemplation? A similar principle evidently applies also to the products of painting, sculpture, and architecture.—Art in Theory, IV.


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