reconsideration of an apparently obsolete concept

No concept so misunderstood as 'mimesis' (see: Nelson Goodman, Arthur Danto, Gérard Genette, Gottfried Boehm, W.J.T. Mitchell) Formerly simply a synonym of art, it now seems to be a sufficient condition to deny a creation the status of an art work.

Reasons enough to reformulate what it implies.


Let us begin with a general circumscription of the concept of imitation.

We call something an imitation - mimesis - when we seem to perceive something where - in fact, on closer view - there is either nothing (representations, memories, hallucinations, dreams) or something else (a mirror, marble, painted canvas, printed paper). As long as you do not have a closer look, you take the imitation - the virtual image - for the original - the real perception. Thus, a mental representation seems to be the original, as long as you do not look, listen or touch, for then it appears that you find yourself in the real world: 'It was only a dream'. Thus, an aural imitation - the recording of someone's voice or of the song of birds - seem to be the original, as long as you do not look, for then it appears that the sound is produced by a loudspeaker: 'It is only a recording'. Particularly apparent is the case of visual imitation. The painter needs only to provide the visual appearance, as long as you do not want to hear or to touch, you think you are dealing with the original. Otherwise, you come to the conclusion that 'it is only a canvas with paint'.

Many an imitation can be found just like that in nature, as when we descry all kinds of figures in clouds, shadows, roots and branches, mossy walls (da Vinci) and what have you:

In that case, we are dealing with 'mimèsis trouvé' or 'spontaneous mimesis'. An even more apt example of spontaneous mimesis is the surface of the water in which Narcissus is mirroring himself. Because there is no edge on the surface of the water like there is a frame on a mirror, it is impossible to tell the mirror image from reality. But if you want to touch it with your hand, it disappears. In that respect, it resembles the risen Christ admonishing us: 'Noli me tangere!':

Also aural mimesis can be spontaneous: when you take the sound of cracking wood for the knocking of a ghost, or the roaring of thunder for the fulminating of an angry god. In matters of aural imitation, the 'noli me tangere' has to be completed with ''noli me videre!'.

There is, finally, also spontaneous mimesis in the mind: memories, representations, dreams, delusions. In matters of representations, the 'noli me tangere' and the 'noli me videre' extend to a 'noli me sentire' altogether.

Next to all these cases of spontaneous mimesis (or 'mim"sis trouvé'), there is also imitation in the true sense of the word: imitation as the result of an intentional activity ('mimésis créé'): when men succeeds in conjuring up an imaginary world where there is in fact only a real one.

The paradigm of mimesis is and remains the mirror - although you should rather think of a mirror wherein you obliquely look to a world, than of the mirror wherein you frontally admire yourself like Narcissus. To begin with, it reminds us of the fact that we are dealing with an instrument made by man for conjuring up images. It further clearly establishes the true relation between original and imitation: mimesis works only when the imitation is 'true to nature''. And, finally, it shows how convincing a virtual image can be, while at the same time the reaching out of a hand suffices to unmask the unreality of it.


The imitated original may exist in the real world. That is the case with a portrait or the photo of a landscape. On first sight, it seems superfluous to duplicate the existing world in a mirror image. But there are valid and compelling motives to do so. From a temporal point of view, the real world - especially the beautiful body - is transient, and therefore begs to be fixed forever. From a spatial point of view, every perception is bound to a certain time and place: wherefore it is a pleasure to have a photo of your beloved when you are travelling, or to discover exotic places while sitting in your lazy chair at home.

Stronger even is the desire to remould the real world according to our image and likeness: we fancy it more beautiful or more ugly, more transparent or more opaque, more rosy or more gloomy, more funny or more tragic, more cosy or more abhorrent. That is why mimesis is so fond of originals that owe their existence solely to their imitation: it suffices to provide a mirror image to make the onlooker believe that it is in fact the mirror image of an existing original. Whereas, in the original state of affairs, the mirror image is the reflection of an original, in the more complex - fully mimetic - state of affairs, the mirror image rather radiates its original. No longer a given reality is duplicated: an infinite number of imaginary worlds is disclosed.

The reversal, through which uncompleted mimesis is turned into completed mimesis, can be rendered in the following scheme, in which → means 'produced':

original → imitation is transformed into imitation → original

Only with completed mimesis is the mirror image released from every referential function. With uncompleted mimesis, you cannot refrain from replacing the perception of the mirror image with that of the reality to which it refers. That is why, in Plato's cavern, the heads have to be immobilised. With completed mimesis, you continue to look into the mirror. The virtual image no longer functions as a sign for the real world, and is thereby turned into a real imitation - into an image or world - in the full sense of the word. That is poignantly contained in the story of Narcissus: he has not his arm guided by the mirror image to find and touch himself, he wants to touch the beautiful boy in the water.
Wherewith, as I hope, the all too cherished idea is swept away that mimesis would equal faithful (so called 'photographical') rendering of reality. Obviously, mimesis has to be true to nature: it stays or falls with the conviction that the original is there before us, in flesh and blood. But that does not mean that an imitation has to duplicate the existing world. Mimesis rather come to full bloom only when it is the reflection of a non-existent, self-created world. Justifiably, Paul Klee put it that art* does not render the visible but makes visible. But that is only a meaningful assertion when we realise that 'making visible' consists in producing a mirror image of a world that did not exist previously. And then we are no longer dealing with an apparent contradiction: art renders the visible as well as the invisible.

Art* as a mirror, hence: but a mirror wherein, more often than not, something is to be seen that obviously cannot exist.


In view of the construction of imaginary worlds, fragments of the real world are used as a model; paradigmatically in the old story of the ideal nude built up with the most beautiful parts of diverse concrete nudes. Also the example of the centaur may be clarifying: man and horse exist in the real world, but the centaur, a combination of parts of both, owes its existence solely to the images that has been made of it:

Here is not the place to unfold a more refined view on the many possible relations between the real and the imaginary world. But it will be useful to adapt our concepts to such division between real and imaginary world. It matters to discern model and original. The many real nudes are the models of the artist, and the ideal nude in which their most beautiful parts are combined is the original. Horse and man are the models, the centaur is the original.

Let us place these concepts into what we will call the scheme of completed mimesis:

uncompleted mimesis imitation = model = original
completed mimesis: imitation  

The confusion of model with original is facilitated in that painters (but also writers and composers) use to take the real world as a model when constructing an original - paradigmatically in the theme of 'the artist and his model'. That gives the impression that they are 'copying' a model - all the more so since da Vinci, in his treatise on painting, proposes to hold a mirror beside the painting to see whether it is faithful. To measure the difference between model and original, it pays to compare the photo a piano - that already differs a lot from the real piano - with a drawing of it:


Nobody will object to call the photo of the Steinway a 'mirror image' of it It seems obvious, then, to assert that the piano on the drawing is not a mirror image of reality. But that comes down to overlook that the piano on the drawing is no less a faithful mirror image, albeit not of the real piano, but of the piano that has been embodied in a virtual image on paper during the process of drawing. Also in completed mimesis, the image is a mirror image, but from an original that obviously cannot exist, and that can only be mirrored faithfully through being unfaithful to the models out of which it is built up....


After having clarified the relation between model and original on the vertical side of the triangle, we are well armed to properly tackle the relation between imitation and original on the lower side of the triangle. For, our definition of mimesis clearly stipulates that mimesis as such - uncompleted no less than completed - is determined no less through similarity then through difference. Complete identity - as with mass products or twins - is not regarded as imitation. To be an imitation, there must be a clearly perceptible difference. It is apparent that we are not dealing here with the kind of difference that tells two brothers from each other: for, how great the likeness between the two, we do not experience the one as an imitation of the other. The difference that makes an imitation an imitation is that the imitation is faithful only for one or more senses, but not for all (or, as far as representations are concerned: that the original is only faithful in the mind, while it does not exist for the senses). However perfect the likeness of the image in the mirror, it differs from the real thing in that it is only light. Although it seems to have a body, that body is not tangible. The imitation in the mirror only resembles the optical appearance of the original, but not the original as such. We can give account of this constitutive difference between imitation and original by adding the mention 'appearance of' in the scheme of the mimetic triangle:

completed mimesis: imitation
(appearance of)

To fully understand why we nevertheless have the certain impression that the original is there in flesh and blood, we have do dwell somewhat on the way in which the world is given to us.


In matters of mimesis, it is an ineradicable illusion that we can grasp reality in one single glimpse. In fact, we are only dealing with a mentally given that is built up from countless perceptions through all the senses and from countless verbal communications. Such mental image is far more comprehensive that the concrete visual, aural, olfactive and tactile perception that we have of something on a given moment. Every concrete perception, however transient, activates the whole mental image. That is why you read into the mirror image the tangible body that you would feel when you would touch the visual appearance. And what is more: that is why you read in the outer appearance above all the inner state of mind and intentions. A perception for one sense serves as sign that refers to perceptions of many other senses: that is why we see the hardness of stone, the sweetness of the fruit and, above all, the presence of soul.

Also what we perceive as an appearance for a separate sense is built up from countless visual perceptions that are structured and completed by our mind. And because many relations turn out to be standard, the brains have learned to conclude to the presence ofconcomitant perceptions: think of the spatial lecture of the configuration of figure against a background, the completion of a partially hidden figure, the reading of all kinds of gradients as roundness and perspective - to mention only some obvious examples.

Thus it comes that an extremely fragmentary perception nevertheless suffices to tell us that there is something to be perceived, and what it is. The more you want to know about that something, the more you have to listen, see, smell, feel, taste and ask. But long before such further exploration, the mind has already produced an encompassing image by way of 'hypothesis'.


It is precisely owing to such structure of the original that something like mimesis is possible altogether: it suffices to provide the appearance for one sense to produce the illusion that the whole thing is there in flesh and blood. In the mirror, you only get to see a purely visual appearance, while you nevertheless have the impression that the whole person is there, not only as a corporeal, but in the first place as an animated being. The same goes when you are blindfolded and get to hear the voice of a person: you have the certain impression that he is corporeally present there in de room. In literature, even a mere sign for such visual appearance suffices: the words 'and he fell in love with his mirror image in the water' suffice to evoke the corollary representation.

In so far, an imitation resembles a single, isolated perception. The difference between both is that, in the real world, additional perceptions can be made, whereas in the imitation, the possibilities for further perception are limited. That goes also for literature: the writer cannot give us an extensive description, and restricts himself therefore equally to providing impressions for separate senses.

And it is precisely because additional perception is impossible, that an imitation is experienced as an imitation, and not as reality. However faithful the visual appearance in the mirror may be: 'on closer look' there is nothing to be heard or felt, and there is no talk of an inner world altogether. And that holds all the more true for representations: 'on closer look' there is nothing to be perceived at all.


The above holds not only of the addition of perceptions from the many different senses, but also of the addition of perceptions within one and the same single sense. A single glimpse suffices to identify a visual impression as 'tree', but it is only when you have examined the tree from all sides, that you get a complete image of what there is really to be seen. In expectance, your brains have completed even the slightest hint into a hypothetical image of the whole.

Herein lies another opportunity for the artist.* A limited number of carefully chosen hints suffices to evoke the illusion that something is present there in its full sensory glory. To depict something round, it is not necessary to render the minutest gradations of light and dark. It suffices to provide the minimal information necessary to evoke the desired impression: some strokes at one side of a circle suffice to evoke the impression of a globe. This principle can be applied to more intricate three-dimensional formations like bodies or draperies. Even more spectacular is the effect when a few elementary cues suffice to evoke complex spatial formations. Thus, a circle with a cross and two points suffices to give the impression that there is a complex spatial formation like a face, ànd that that face is the outer appearance of some inner soul. The effect is all the more strong when we get more clues, although the effect is stronger when no longer a line, but an entire surface is delineated against a background. Not only the shape of a circumference can work such wonder. Also the depiction of certain characteristic features of a face suffice to evoke the presence of the person ànd the appearance of Hitler. That goes not only for schematic suggestion, but also for a sensorily fully saturated image:

Thus it comes that the rendering of a part does not fail to suggest the presence of the whole: you do not read the heads of Brancusi as a head that comes to roll from the guillotine, and a torso as a body with the head and the limbs cut off.
For the same reason, colour can be omitted in visual representations (marble sculptures, prints, photos) without inducing the idea that we are dealing with bodies painted white. And, from way back, visual artists have understood that some suggestive strokes suffice to produce an often more convincing effect than minute rendering of details.

The intrasensory reduction can proceed even more drastically. With a torso, the absence of the extremities does not catch the eye, because what remains visible is a coherent and recognisable whole, and because what is omitted is as it were framed out. The case is totally different when the parts withheld in the image are no longer a coherent whole. What has been left out, now leaves a blank in the image. In the Klee below you get to see two arms, the fore-arms of which are condensed with drum sticks. Of both eyes of the drummer, you get to see only one. What is perceived as the right arm, hangs totally isolated in a vacuum. There is no trace whatsoever of a trunk, and even less of a drum:


Although there is only something to see and nothing to be heard, you feel the threat of the beat. And what is more: even though only loose parts of the body can be discerned, they are clearly part of one and the same encompassing whole - although it is no longer sustained by the coherent visual appearance of the body, but by the unity of the will that animates gesture and glance alike. We can compare that image with Schlemmer's figure from the 'Triadic ballet', the body of which has been made invisible, so that only the face, the hands and the lower legs are visible. Also here, the movements of those membra disiecta are ascribed to an underlying unity:

schlemmer triadic ballet

If you would try to film these images, you would have to make the intrasensory reduction undone, and to replace the newly constructed original with the model. Therein, visual art comes to resemble literature, which contents itself with even more scarce information. To the same effect: when the vague, reduced image, that we have constructed via the text is translated into a fully saturated filmic image, that cannot fail to disappoint us.

To be a faithful rendering - a mirror image - an imitation need not provide the appearance for all the senses, nor the saturated appearance for a single sense. Quite the contrary: an imitation is the more artistic, the more it knows to suggest a full sensory appearance with less, or even with apparently meaningless information. And what is more: often, suggestion produces a more convincing faithfulness than so called 'photographic' rendering, which is often experienced as 'surrealistic' if not 'hallucinatory'.


Also in real life, the share of suggestion in perception is often considerable. Only when we are really interested in what we noticed in a glimpse do we proceed to exhaustive perception. Suggestion is thereby replaced with concrete perception. But, as a rule, we are not at all interested in full perception, on the contrary. To begin with, we are not always living in the perceptible world: the whole night through, but also during the day, we may yield to dreaming and daydreaming. If submerging in the real world, we do so principally in our mind: we are only thinking about things in the past, in the future and on other places. If we leave our thoughts for what they are and proceed to perceiving, we filter the majority of our perceptions. And we use the remaining perceptions mostly as mere signs for further furtive perceptions or for mere thoughts. Only exceptionally do we allow an appearance to fully enter our mind, and that mostly entails activating other senses: what we heard, we want to see and to touch, to finally consume it gastronomically or erotically.

The survey above may suffice to remind us that, in daily life, we rather ward off perception than yield to it. When yielding to fantasising, it is not at all difficult to suspend sensory perception: that is what we do every night. If we proceed to perception, we generally content ourselves with looking, and resign from resorting to the other ('lower') senses. If a sound imposes itself, we immediately turn our eyes towards the source of sound to see what it is. Only when we have to work with our hands, or proceed to eating or lovemaking, are the diverse tactile senses activated.

That explains altogether the ease with which we take something like an imitation for the real thing. In dreams as in a novel, we naturally take representations for real. With the same ease we accept the intrasensory reduction of purelyvisual imitations. Only with moving visual images is it not so obvious to switch off the other senses, because movement often makes noise. With auditory imitations, on the other hand, it is practically impossible to suspend the desire to also see what we hear: when listening to the news, we prefer to see the face of the speaker, although that does not provide us more information. Even when listening to music do many listeners want to see the interpreters, although the world that is conjured up in music is invisible.

That does not prevent that a conflict can arise between our propensity to suspend the activity of the other senses, or of the senses as such, and the propensity to proceed to more complete sensory activity or sensory activity altogether. When the latter turns out to be impossible, it appears that we find ourselves in the imaginary world of imitation. A first, already described effect of the conflict between the suggestion of full reality and the reduced sensory characteristics of the image is that we experience imitation as imitation: what is suggested turns out to be absent and its suggestion merely an illusion.

But there is more. The difference between endorsed and illusionary suggestion has also an effect on the way in which we understand the original. In literature, the world that is conjured up is always perceived a little bit as a ghost world, a 'dream world' - however much it may be experienced as tangible reality when we are submerged in it. And that goes also for aural imitations, especially for music. Visual imitations, on the other hand, are experienced as more worldly and material, because it is with our eyes that we are orienting ourselves in the world, although the still image always has something of the frozen. Only moving images with a sound track have a degree of reality that nearly differs from reality itself. That there is nevertheless still a difference becomes apparent only when the subject matter introduces the dimension of touch: the train that moves towards us or the nude that we would like to touch.

The conflict between suggestion and perception is heightened when the intrasensory information is reduced. Even though we need only summary information to suggest rounding, the less information we get, the more ghostlike the world appears to be. As we get more information, the world becomes more worldly and material:




From here derives a conflict between the propensity to saturate the intrasensory information and the desire to produce a maximum effect with minimal means.

Also resigning from colour has an effect on the original that should not be underestimated. That is most apparent in the difference between a version in black and white and one in colour of one and the same picture, especially when we are dealing with subject matter where colour plays a crucial role, as with a nude. Whereas in the colour version of the Venus of Urbino we easily read impressions of volume and space, the softness and warmth of the skin - and with this nude exceptionally also a dedicated soul - the black and white version utterly fails to convey the effects produced by colour.

The conflict only comes to its apogee when there is a drastic intrasensory reduction. For there is a fundamental difference between the world of painting - the world of visual perception - and the world of literature - the world of imagination. In the imagination, there is no problem with fragmentary and reduced representations: imagined objects tend to resemble the figure from Schlemmer's 'Triadic Ballet'. But on the two-dimensional plane, what is omitted cannot just be left blank: the eye runs up against a gap when it wants to find information that is merely suggested. The painter can either minimally indicate what has been omitted - and than you get beings which in our world would be experienced as deformed - or he can just leave it away - as with Klee, where you get some one-eyed head with legs that telekinetically commands a free-floating arm. For the same reason, the eye often feels tempted to read a torso as a mutilated body. In Rodin's 'Iris messagère' the temptation is only heightened in that only one arm has been omitted and in that there is already a cut between the legs:


Although the reduction of the original does not corrode the suggestion of reality, it has an effect on the way in which the original is experienced: the stronger the reduction, the more ghostlike the original. Taking this into account, it still holds true that the imitation is a faithful rendering of the original: the original of which the coloured version of the Venus of Urbino is a faithful rendering, is another one than the original of which the version in black and white is an imitation. On the axis original →imitation, there still is talk of identity, even when there is no longer a saturated rendering of the original.

And that reminds us of the fact that, next to the relation between original and imitation, there is also the relation between model and original. Only with completed mimesis is this relation determined by identity. But, as mimesis unfolds into completed mimesis, the difference between model and original only increases.

To begin with, there are the new originals that are created through idealisation and essentialisation. From a given reality, not every aspect is equally important. When the artist wants to show that someone is anxious, he only has to provide the cues that express anxiety. All the other cues may me omitted. Thus, Munch's 'The scream' 'does not provide ample information about the individuality, the sex, the age of the person who cries out. But there is no doubt whatsoever that we are dealing with someone who is terrorised and cries out.

Next to such essentialisation, there is also idealisation: a given is so transformed as to produce a stronger effect. Think of the removal of stains from the skin, the reddening of the lips, the elongating of the legs, and what have you. A well know example is the caricature that exaggerates the characteristic traits of a face

Essentialisation and idealisation often go hand in hand, to the extent that the borders of the recognisable are crossed, as in Brancusi's 'Torse de jeune homme'.

But, that the original is idealised and essentialised, does not mean that its imitation would no longer be faithful. It only is no longer faithful to the familiar image of a young man or a young woman. With a pinch of salt - and paraphrasing Plato or Schopenhauer - we could say that Brancusi faithfullyimitates the 'idea' of a young man and a young women 'an sich'.


Artists do not restrict themselves to essentialisation and idealisation of the model. From way back, they relish in creating originals that are not to be found in the real world altogether: mythical beings, (centaurs and mermaids, dragons and monsters), religious beings (all kinds of gods, angels and demons) and fantastical beings as such (Brueghel, Bosch):

Especially from the invention of photography onwards, painters begin to excel in the production of non-existing originals, which, for a long time, have been out of reach for photographers - think of Odilon Redon or Salvador Dali.

But, next to these traditional composite originals, there increasingly appear beings that hitherto had been unconceivable. To begin with, there are the expressionistically deformed beings, like those of Otto Dix. From Cubism onwards, there appear figures that inhabit no longer organic, but rather geometrical bodies. In Schlemmer's 'Triadic Ballet' they are three-dimensional, but with Klee, they are imitated on the flat plane. Picasso even creates people that are no longer three-dimensional, but two-dimensional, as in his 'Three musicians'. In his 'Fighting Forms' Franz Marc, on the other hand, stages figures that do no longer resemble men or animals, and with Malevitch, they are further reduced to two-dimensional geometrical beings that float weightless in a space with parallel layers.

It cannot be emphasised enough that all these new originals, not only those of Redon and Dali, but also those of Schlemmer, Klee and Picasso, and particularly those of Marc and Malevitch, are rendered faithfully. What is more: especially such fantastic originals ask for a saturated, non-reduced rendering: precisely because we are not familiar with them, there are no pre-established mental schemes on which to rely. Whereas a few hints suffice to conjure up a figure like Hitler, with a triangle you cannot but provide the required information to prevent that three loose corners are read as simply three loose corners, and not as a triangle.


That is not to deny that there is also a more suggestive rendering of the new originals. On the Klee below the circles are read as eyes, and, by extension, also the circle on the hand. The black line around the eyes and over the mouth is a faithful rendering of similar configurations in the original. But the line that circumscribes the face is not read as the rendering of something in the original. And the face itself, finally, is not read as a deformed cue hinting at a normal face, but as the faithful rendering of face with the same form:

paul klee


In matters of mimesis, the medium is that part of reality that has been transformed to give the impression ofbeing (the appearance of) something else. Examples of media for visual mimesis are the silver surface of the mirror which produces a virtual image; the piece of wood that gives the impression of being a monster; the marble, bronze or wood that gives the impression of being a body; the painted surface of the canvas, the printed sheet of paper or the developed photo paper on which a world appears. Examples of media for aural mimesis are the sounds produced by metal plates with which the thunder is imitated in the theatre or by the loudspeakers with which recordings are rendered, and also the tones of instruments on which music is played. Literature has no medium at all: to produce mental images in the mind, no matter has to be transformed. Literature has only an mediated medium: language (see below).

Some media can be so transformed as to seamlessly match the original. As long as we have no 'closer look', such media are nearly discernible from the original: think of the mirror, colour photos and tape recordings. In that respect they come close to the mediumless representations of literature, which coincide fully with the (mostly reduced) original. But, as a rule, the medium has characteristics which prevent it from seamlessly matching the original: think of the strokes on the painting, the lines on the drawing, the stones of the mosaic; and what have you. In all these cases, we are dealing with an autonomous medium. When, on the other hand, the medium seamlessly matches the original, than we can call it a heteronomous medium*.

In a first series of cases, the difference between the medium and (the appearance of) the original disappears, because our brains interpret them away. When a horse is standing behind a tree, we do not read the two fragments of the horse as two pieces of a horse. We fill in the hidden part. For the same reason do we not read hatchings as stripes of shadow, but as a continuous shadow on a curved surface. When a scene is to be seen behind a lattice, we do not read is as a heap of loose fragments, but as a whole that continues behind the lattice. For the same reason do we not read the skin and the aureole on a mosaic as a series of loos fragments, but as a continuous whole.

In all these cases, the eye overlooks the autonomous traces of the medium. But also here can the hypothetical construction of the mind not be completed through additional perceptions. Thus, an autonomous medium becomes a second factor that changes the nature of the original. Artists can make a virtue of need and choose their medium so as to have it reveal something that is lacking in the original appearance in the real world: just like the intrasensory reduction makes the original more ghostly, so does white marble make the nude more serene, and so does gold or transparent glass lend some divine flavour to the figure.**

In the same vein, the writer or poet can use the sonorous body or the visual appearance of words as an additional mimetic or semiotic medium.**

And artists can, finally, eliminate the problem altogether by choosing originals that match the medium. On a mosaic, the artist may use round pieces of stone to render pearls. What is in essence an autonomous medium, is thus turned into a heteronomous medium.


There are imitations that can be perceived directly: a painting or a sculpture, music, theatre, ballet. Other imitations cannot be perceived at all: from a novel or a poem, you can only see or hear the words with which representations are conjured up. But the real work of art - the imitation of a world - exists only in the mind of the listener or reader who constructs this world according to the instructions provided by the words. In that respect, a book can be compared with a score that dictates the course of events that are evoked through words. When the imitation is perceptible, we are dealing with unmediated mimesis, and when they are not perceptible, we are dealing withmediated mimesis.

Let us remark that mediated mimesis comprises more then literature alone. The signs that conjure up representations can also be non-verbal. Already in the real world can objects conjure up representations in the mind: think of the graveyard where ghosts tend to roam around. Relics, ruins and historical places have the same effect. In that respect, these objects have something in common with the words in literature: they conjure up representations in the mind. That is precisely wherefore they often are exhibited: think of Beuys' 'Wirtshaftswerte': Not only real objects, but also imitations can conjure up representations. Thus, Ilya Kabakov constructed a faithful imitation of a toilet in the former Sovjet Union that had been used as a house. And that cannot fail to make the ghosts of its inhabitants revive..Artists can even take a further step and use real objects to conjure up imaginary events. Thus a murder can be evoked by merely providing the real traces: a dagger and some blood suffice.


We can classify the imitation according to the senses addressed. Film, theatre, opera and ballet address the ear and the eye. Sculpture, painting, prints and photography address only the eye. Aural imitations - ordinary and musical - address only the ear.

There are also imitations for the nose and the skin (stuffed animals, dummy teats), the tongue (all kinds of ersatz if they are 'true to nature') and the genitals. Diverse combinations are possible: a stuffed animal addresses both eye and hand. But in many respects, these kinds of imitations are inferior to imitations for the distance senses (eye and ear). To begin with, they are situated towards the end of the chain of senses which runs from ear, over eye, nose, skin to tongue and/or genitals. As the chain approaches its end, its ability to conjure up a world decreases. For the same reason is it increasingly difficult to tell imitation from original: to tell imitated coffee from real coffee, you have to run through the chain in reverse direction and look from what it is made. Touch is situated in the middle: the lips and the tongue of the baby take the dummy teats for real nipples, but its hands feel that there is no breast. And, finally, they are extremely difficult to manipulate: smells cannot be produced and removed in space at will and that makes them extremely inappropriate not only for staging processes, but foremost for enabling simultaneous perception by a larger 'audience'.

The mediated arts, on the other hand, address no senses at all: they are perceived in the mind. In principle, it would be possible to discern representations according to their mental sensory qualities. It immediately appears that these comprise, next to visual and aural, also olfactive and all kinds of tactile representations, but foremost countless inner perceptions, not mediated by outer appearances (feelings, intentions,...). But such a classification is only interesting to discern between diverse kinds of mediated mimesis, not for a classification of imitations as such. It would be equally misleading to include in such a classification the words (or objects) by which representations are conjured up in the mind The words by which the author conjures up representations in the mind are audible or visible. But that does not make them to visual or aural imitations: mental representations are not perceived by the senses.

Let us, finally, remark that our classification is only about the senses addressed and has nothing whatsoever to do with the sensory nature of the world conjured up. Visual and aural impressions can also conjure up tactile qualities, and many a visual or aural appearance is a sign for inner states. As we have analysed above, there is a difference between the original and its countless appearances. The strength of a good - interesting - imitation lies precisely in its ability to conjure up a most complex world through providing one single sensuous appearance.


Many an imitation is made for its own sake and for the sake of what it imitates. But other imitations serve another purpose. We can make imitations in order to identify somebody or to fix the traces of an accident, to promote some product (meals in a restaurant, clothes or cars in catalogues and magazines), or to show what havoc has been wreaked by war or a tornado, or to show how something looks like (illustration). Also three-dimensional imitations can refer to real objects: models of atoms, molecules, DNA, cells, organs, dinosaurs, primeval man and what have you. And there are, finally, also scale models for buildings, cars, airplanes and the like.

In all these cases it is as if you look through the imitation to the reality it depicts: the model of the opera of Paris is an imitation, but in your mind you replace the medium and the size of the model with the real materials and the real scale. The imitation - the image - is only a means for a goal that lies outside it. We can call this instrumental mimesis. This kind of imitation my be compared with words: the image is only a sign that refers to (the representation of) the real thing.

That does not prevent that, in all these cases, we can make abstraction from the referential function and enjoy the imitation as something in its own right, and then judge its qualities as an image. That is what pupils do when the set up the skeleton in the class room to frighten somebody. That is what Damien Hirst does when he enlarges a model and exhibits it in a museum. That the imitations are enlarged and exhibited, facilitates the unlinking from its referential function. And that there are always made some changes (a piece of cloth on the skeleton, a change in size of the model) only betrays how much such instrumental mimesis is not conceived as an imitation sui generis.


Nearly related is the case where images serve as signs as such. Already real objects can be used as non-verbal signs, as when someone lifts his glass to show that he wants another drink. More handy are imitations: paradigmatically in the icon of a man or a woman that indicates where to enter the toilet.

There are also more sophisticated complexes of signs that convey more complex meanings: think of the often very complicated iconographic programs in the cathedrals or on the many ancient and modern allegories, like those of Bosch and Brueghel and Marcel Duchamp's 'La Mariée mise à  nu par ses célibataires, même'.

Also in these cases we can judge the images in their own right. They then stop being signs, and what they are referring to does - in as far as we are concerned with art - no longer matter. That goes especially for allegories, like the Primavera of Botticelli, Brueghel, Bosch, but also for allegoric still-lives. Also the reverse is true: the quality of the image is of no concern for its referential function: a bad image of a man or a woman suffices to discern the right door - as long as the opposition between male and female is clear. There is a mimetic logic as there is a semiotic logic, and both should not be confused. That goes not only for icons on toilets, but above all for intricate allegories.


That mimesis is 'true to nature', does not mean that mimesis is a kind of deception. Quite the contrary. As is already obvious from our definition, 'on a closer look' it should always be evident that we are dealing with an imitation, and not with the original itself.

That is why mimesis has to be discerned from illusionism or trompe-l'oeil, and above all from deception as such (forgery). In all these cases, it is so difficult to establish the difference, that we take the imitation for the real thing - and that implies that it is no longer an imitation, but false reality.That makes the whole difference between a false dollar bill and Jasper Johns' flag: the latter immediately betrays that it is an imitation, because it obviously is not made of cloth, but of paint on canvas.

For the same reason, the painting of which there is talk in the stories of Zeuxis and Apollodoros - or in those about the young da Vinci - have rather to do with the art of deception than with the art of imitation - even when the required abilities are roughly the same.

An imitation willingly betrays that it is only an imitation. That is why artists never forget to reveal the strings of the puppet. Already the mirror is cast in a frame, and that goes also for the painting. A sculpture is placed on a pedestal and theatre is performed on a scene. While listening to music, the sight of the instruments never fails to remind of the fact that we are merely listing to a performance. For the same reason are imitations all the more artistic as the intrasensory of intersensory reduction increases and do artist have a predilection for autonomous media. For the same reason does sculpture, that has already the third dimension in common with the real world, willingly resign from rendering colour (Madame Tussaud or Carl de Andrea), let alone tactile qualities (like the stuffed animal, that, by the way is idealised in that it has no bones). For the same reason do artists preferably conjure up worlds that are evidently not real. For the same reason do artists show a predilection for imitations for the distance senses. And for the same reason do artists more then often reduce the continuum of their medium to a limited number of steps:


In every day language, there is also talk of imitation when someone imitates the behaviour or the skill of another person. But even when the words are the same, the phenomenon is completely different. That becomes immediately apparent when the verb is replaced by the noun: although it makes sense to say that someone imitates someone's behaviour, that does not imply that the one becomes an imitation of the other. And it is not difficult to see why. In mimesis, the actor imitates special kinds of behaviour in view of impersonating a figure. That is worlds apart from imitating a behaviour to conform oneself - think of soldiers or dancers - or to acquire an ability. Nor the dancers, nor the soldiers are out at making believe that they are someone else and also the onlooker does not take the one for the other. And that is, to begin with, because the behaviour as such is practically the same, as in the case of the twins or the mass products above. But that is above all because they only imitate some particular behaviour, whereas the rest of their appearance remains the same: their own. For the same reason do we not have the impression that all the policemen are imitations of each other because they all wear the same uniform. Even less is there mimesis when the pupil imitates the example of a teacher. And the same goes for all those who share a common passion or obsession. That is why it is only to regret that figures like René Girard have extended the technical term 'mimesis' to a domain that is fundamentally alien to the domain of art, all the more so, since there are good terms available in that other domain. In any case, mimesis in the sense used above is not René Girard's mimesis. [Added 6/2012: In the book version, we will discern 'perceptive' from 'performative' mimesis']

© Stefan Beyst, November 2005.

* In this text it is assumed that art and mimesis are synonyms. See our text: 'Mimesis and art'
** For a more detailed analysis of the medium of mimesis, see: 'Mimesis and medium' (soon on this website).


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