mimesis and art

The story goes that nothing is more difficult than defining art: it is supposed to defy every definition. In fact, nothing is easier - the job can be done in three words: art is mimesis.

Let us clarify one thing or another...


Art as such is the capacity to do something well. There are as many arts, then, as there are human skills:the art of speaking, the art of writing, the art of cooking, the art of clothing, the art of making artefacts, the art of making interiors and buildings, the art of dancing, the art of lovemaking, the art of healing, the art of lying and cheating, the art of stealing and exploiting, the art of murdering - and what have you.


But we are not thinking of these arts when talking about 'art'. When talking about 'art', we think of painters like Van Eyck, da Vinci, Titian, Rubens; of sculptors like Polykleitos, Sluter, Michelangelo, Bernini and Rodin, or of graphic artists like Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya. But also of writers like Homer and Shakespeare, poets like Hölderlin and Baudelaire, and, finally of composers like Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, Schönberg.

It is immediately apparent, then, what all these artists have in common: they conjure up a new imaginary world. One can conceive of all kinds of names for such an activity. Ever since Plato and Aristotle,it has been customary to call it mimesis: the imitation - the making of images - of existing or non-existing worlds. During the last centuries, the concept has been increasingly questioned, and it is meanwhile wholly corroded. That is why we have written and exhaustive text in which we demonstrate what mimesis- making an image - really means. There we distinguish uncompleted mimesis, which reflects the existing world, and completed mimesis, which makes non-existing worlds visible; immediated mimesis (visual and aural arts) from mediated mimesis (literature); different kinds of faithfulness (suggestion and intersensory or intrasensory reduction of the original); instrumental and autonomous mimesis. We refer the reader who is nevertheless not prepared to stomach the idea of art as a faithful imitation of (mostly non-existing) worlds, to this text: 'Mimesis'.


If we accept that artists make images, we can complete our enumeration of the arts with the art of imitation - the art of making images.

The problem is that nobody uses this expression, and that everybody says bluntly: 'art'. Such elliptical use of the word 'art' - coupled with the unwillingness or the inability to use the full expression - lies at the roots of many misunderstandings. For, it is no longer obvious what a sentence like 'that is art' means: it can mean that something is an image, or that something is a good image. When I compare a photo of mine with a portrait of Raphael, most people would immediately object 'this is not art' - whereby it would be their intention to say that my image is rather poor. When a designer would present his latest collection in a gallery, most people would equally object 'this is not art', whereby it would be their intention to say that his creations are clothes, not images. When speaking about other arts, the name of the art is often equally invoked to reject minor creations: as when one says of a bad cook that he cannot cook, although he obviously did so. But it is always possible to resort to the full expression: 'he does not understand the art of cooking'. As far as art is concerned, that is only possible when one uses the full expression: 'He does not understand the art of making images' - but that would presuppose that one specifies which art we are talking about. If one restricts himself to the elliptical expression, one would have to say' he does not understand the art of art'.

The problem is further complicated in that making art consists of two closely linked activities that should be neatly discerned. Especially in completed mimesis, the artist does more than merely create an image. Precisely by doing so, he also creates the world that has to be imitated. And both activities have to be judged on their own merits: there is the art of making an image, and the art of creating a new world


There is a widespread propensity to regard only perfect creations as art. Many creations that are not artful are looked down upon, if not excluded from the realm of art altogether

Many works of art are excluded from the realm of art because of the nature of the world that is conjured op. That goes in the first place for the art of children (role play, drawings) and for children: not only literature for children, comics, but foremost mimetic toys (puppet houses and toy trains, dolls and stuffed animals). But also a lot of art for adults is rejected for the same reason: think of statues of saints and garden gnomes, of genres like horror, detective stories, science fiction, doctor novels; and of all forms of pop music that is closely connected to dance. Even artworks that are accepted as such are classified in higher or lower forms. Many a philosopher has devised a hierarchy of arts, and within the each individual art higher forms are separated form lower forms: think of the hierarchy of the Académie, where historical and biblical scenes were estimated higher than portraits, landscapes and still lives. In as far as the nude is included in the system, it seems obligatory to make a distinction between 'artistic nudes' and 'pornography'.

Other works of art are excluded because of the quality of the image itself. Thus, images are estimated higher when they have an autonomous rather than a heteronomous medium: wherefore photography, casts, objets trouvés, assemblages and the like are looked down upon; when there is more intrasensory reduction: wherefore devotees of art prefer suggestive rather than saturated rendering; when the intersensory reduction is greater, especially when the reduction goes in the direction away from the contact senses: wherefore black and white rendering in two or three dimensions is estimated higher than coloured statues like Madame Tussauds, especially when they also are out at rendering tactile qualities like de Andrea, or stuffed animals; when the world that is conjured up differs considerably from the real world: wherefore art that reveals a 'deeper' world is estimated higher; when the technique is not easily mastered: wherefore we admire a sculptor that cuts a sculpture in marble more than one who simply makes a cast, and a draughtsman who knows to draw a portrait more than a photographer who resorts to the camera.

These scales of value are often combined. Wax figures like those of Madame Tussaud have an heteronomous medium as well as poor intersensory reduction.Stuffed animals not only belong to the world of children, but they have also a low degree of intersensory reduction: they address not only the eye and the ear, but also to feeling hand and the skin. But it is foremost photography that - although only in its most primitive forms - scores low on all fronts: it is the very paradigm of a heteronomous medium; it seldom resorts to suggestion; it mostly renders images that are either trivial (family photos) or taboo ('pornography'); it seldom diverges from the real world; and it is, finally 'only a question of pressing the button'. That is why photography is predestined to become the scapegoat of the visual arts: 'photographic rendering" continues to be the paradigm of everything that is loathed in the visual arts. No wonder that mimesis as such became quasi synonymous with non artistic - one of the many forms of the mimetic taboo - which, in its turn, lies at the roots of the actual problems with defining mimesis.

Thus, many kinds of images are unjustifiably banned from the realm of art. That does not mean that all images belong to the realm of art. All forms of instrumental mimesis have to be excluded in as far as they are read as signs and not as images sui generis: documentary photos, illustrations, schematic representations, and allegories ('pictorial language').

The elliptical use of the term 'art', together with the propensity to recognise only the highest achievements as art, is responsible, not only for rejection of minor forms of the image from the realm of art, but also for the converse move: the assimilation of superior achievements on other domains - from the design of a cathedral to the conception of a world view. The standard example of such assimilation is architecture, which continues to unjustifiably be considered as art:: apart from imitative elements on columns and the like, architecture is spatial design, not an image of real or imaginary spaces.


Like all forms of human activity, also the production of images is susceptible to continuous change. In a first phase, the technique of making images is discovered through redirecting techniques that have been developed for other purposes: from the bough to a string instrument, from the polishing of axes to the polishing of statues, from informative use of language to evocative use - to mention only a few early examples. Once a technique making images is discovered, ever new purely mimetic techniques are developed, and redirected in their turn to other purposes. Gradually, a whole array of mimetic techniques is developed that are subsumed under the name of 'art'.

The continuous redirecting of techniques towards new purposes is responsible for the fact that one and the same result can be obtained by different techniques, and that one and the same technique can be used for different purposes. That lies at the roots of many problems with the classification of kinds of purposes, because the goals are often referred to through the means. Thus three-dimensional non-moving images are mostly referred to as 'sculpture', even when they are cast in bronze or simply assembled. The problem is very acute in the arts, especially since it is no longer evident that we are dealing with the art of making images. No wonder that there is a lot of confusion. Let us give some examples, first of transgressions between the arts themselves, and second, of transgressions beyond the realm of art.


The most conspicuous examples of crossing the boundaries are found in literature. To begin with, there are the countless efforts to concentrate on the aural body of language: think of the sound poetry of Marinetti (parole in libertà), Hugo Ball, but foremost of the Ursonate of Kurt Schwitters. Either the artist replaces the words with meaningless syllables and retains only the prosody of language, so that he is imitating a kind of 'glossolalia' (Ball). Or he replaces the words with 'interjections' (aaah! oooh!) or the sounds of animals (the ''Ü ÜÜ Ü' in the example below) and objects:

ball karawane

hugo ball: karawane (fragment)

In all these cases, the poet is no longer making poetry, but an aural image, executed with the mouth instead of traditional instruments. Since, as a rule, the prosody of language - precisely the component of language that is purified and systematised in music - is withheld, we are dealing with a kind of intermediary form between music and aural mimesis, which unjustifiably poses as poetry.

What poses as 'visual poetry', on the other hand, is only an extension of the mimetic and semiotic use of the medium (see 'Mimesis en medium', soon on this website). Formerly, it was mostly the sound of language that was used to add an aural image to the representations conjured up in the mind. More recently, the focus is shifting to the visual appearance of the written word. When the visual appearance of the words is used as a visual image that is added to the representations in the mind, we are dealing with new variants of the combination of word and image (a kind of integrated illustration).

There is also 'visual poetry' that belongs to the domain of design (see below).

Other examples of transgression between the arts are to be found in music. Under the guise of freeing the sound from its subordination under the tonal system, the realm of music was supposedly extended through the introduction of new sounds, produced by traditional or new instruments - including the mouth, like in Ligeti's Aventures - or by electronic generation. In reality, only a new impulse was given to the old, but underdeveloped genre of aural mimesis (see: 'Three kinds of soundscape, one music').

There is also visual art that shifts to literature. Via the concept of 'concept art', Lawrence Weiner sells words on the walls of the museum that conjure up representations as visual art, if not as 'sculpture' like in 'En route' (2005).

Examples of plastic arts that pose as aural mimesis or literature are rather rare. Far more abundant are the examples of a shift to domains outside the realm of art:


What you see is what you see
Frank Stella

The same plastic arts that proved rather immune to a metamorphosis into music or literature, have been very sussceptible to a second form of corssing the boudnaries not of a specific art, but of the domains of art as such. Many artists have made this stride in full confidence of having elevated art to a higher level. Their transgression could easily go unnoticed because of the elliptical use of the word 'art', wrapped in often very sophisticated - or mystificating - theories*. There are three forms of such transgression: the stride from art to design, the stride from art to reality, and the stride from art to philosophy/science.

Under the label 'design', we can subsume all kinds of transformations of nature in view of meeting human needs: gastronomy, clothes, furniture, interiors and architecture, cars, airplanes, yachts and machines, and what have you.

There is no doubt that we are dealing here with creations, but not every creation is art. Designers do not disclose an imaginary world, they add real products to the real world. There is no doubt either that the diverse aesthetic categories apply not only to art, but also to design - and to the real world as such. But neither nature, nor all the forms of design resulting from its transformation are therefore transformed into art: philosophy of art and aesthetics are two distinct disciplines.

In the plastic arts, the stride towards design is made when - especially geometric - abstraction cuts off the umbilical cord with figuration. Even then, with painters like Mondriaan, a last remnant of mimesis is still preserved: the lines seem to continue behind the frame, so that the frame is experienced as a kind of window with a view on an imaginary abstract pattern. But in many a work of figures like Barnett Newman and Frank Stella even this umbilical cord is cut off and we are entering the domain of two-dimensional design. And that goes also when the canvas is covered with pure colour that totally coincides with itself, as is the case with the monochromes of Yves Klein.

The implosion of the three-dimensional space suggested on the canvas into a mere two-dimensional plane seals the shift from art to design. In the three-dimensional plastic arts, such implosion is impossible. That is why there is no purely geometric abstract sculpture: a cube, imitated on a plane, is still an image, whereas a three-dimensional cube totally coincides with itself. The border between mimesis and design lies where the three-dimensional object is no longer the image of a real or imaginary original, but bluntly coincides with itself. It suffices to compare Brancusi's cock with his 'Endless Columns'. Whereas Brancusi is in the first place a sculptor, figures like Donald Judd are mere designers, notwithstanding the fact that he is always referred to as a .... sculptor, even in the otherwise respectable Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

Also to the realm of design - in case: environmental design - belongs the so-called 'land art' of figures like Richard Long and the 'environmental sculptures' of Andy Goldsworthy. Two of these variants of the stride outside art are described in 'Mimesis and abstraction'. A more general approach of the problematic can be read in: 'On the difference between art and design'.

The introduction of existing objects paved the way for a second sidestep. From Cubism onwards, cruder forms of mimetic medium like collage, assemblage, ready-mades and objet trouvé came to be introduced in the museum. That does not necessarily mean that reality itself is installed in the world of art: the saddle and the handlebars of Picasso's bull are merely the mimetic medium with which the image of a bull is conjured up. Therein, they do not differ from the marble that in a traditional sculpture evokes the flesh and blood of a human body. Misled as they were by Duchamp's bicycle wheel - which is no longer a work of art, but a statement about art (see below) - they did not realise that their creations were no longer mimetic media -which conjure up something that is different from themselves - but real transformations of the real world, and thus design, albeit non-functional. That goes especially for objects like the iron with nails of Man Ray and 'Déjeuner en fourrure' of Meret Oppenheim (1936). But also for the machines of Tinguely en Panamarenko.

A last form of such metamorphosis into design are the paintings on which, in the wake of the Surrealistic 'écriture automatique' and the 'Action Painting' , the movement of the hand develops into plain writing. Since this writing consists of non-existent letters, as with Dotremont and Cy Twombly, this is a kind of visual glossolalia. And, since these letters are not pronounceable and do not conjure up representations, we are not dealing with mimesis, but with special forms of (poetic-esoteric) letter design.

In music, the stride outside the realm of art is made when musical space is corroded through the dissolution of tonal relations and the introduction of noises, but foremost through the distribution of sounds in real space (see: 'Musical Space'). From a positive point of view, this development gave a new impulse not only to the already mentioned ordinary - non-musical - aural mimesis, but also to still underdeveloped forms of design: audible architecture. Both developments are described in 'Tones and Noises: three kinds of Soundscape, one Music'. Concrete analyses are 'Luigi Nono's Prometeo' and 'Bill Fontana'.

Literature as such - the images that are conjured up by the words -  cannot develop into design, because representations have no medium. Things are different with the language that conjures up these representations. When it is no longer used to conjure up representations, but to make statements about the world, there is no longer question of mimesis (see next paragraph). Such statements are often well 'designed': think of proverbs, slogans and well written texts. There is something like 'verbal design': what formerly used to be called 'rhetoric'. The design of language plays an important role in literature. But what makes a sonnet a work of art is not the meter nor the rhyme, but the fact that the words conjure up representations. Statements like ' 'Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan' (Goethe) or 'Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral' (Brecht) are no poetry.

Next to verbal design, there is also letter design. We have seen how typography can be used mimetically: as a means of making a visual image that adds to the representations conjured up by the letters. Typography can also be used as 'iconic sign' for the way in which sounds or words have to be pronounced, as with Marinetti's 'Parole in libertà':

marinetti parole in liberta

We are dealing here with a kind of primitive score, not with 'visual poetry'. Also a musical score is no 'visual music': music is the sound that is produced according to the prescriptions in the score. The visual signs of both kinds of scores belong to the domain of typographical design. And that goes also for the many forms of 'visual scores' in music - the former 'Augenmusik', which got a new impetus in the fifties.
What presents itself as an extension of the domain of art, turns out to be nothing more than a transgression into the nearly related domains of visual and aural design. And such transgression is not at all revolutionary: we are only dealing with newer versions of environmental design and new forms or aural architecture.


For a second kind of transgression, the way was paved by the already mentioned introduction of reality in the collage and the assemblage from Cubism onward. That not only made artists blind for the fact that many of their assemblages were in fact mere design, it also blurred the distinction between imitated and displayed reality.

From way back man has staged reality. That is already the case with nature: think of flowers in a vase or fruit in a bowl, fishes in an aquarium or animals in a zoo. Also man himself is put on display: from the child that is presented to the community at birth, over the beautiful women who exhibits herself before the eyes of the public, to the corpse that is laid out before its burial. Formerly, also rarities were exhibited: think of Siamese twins, women with three breasts, foetuses, and what have you. And, last but not least, remnants of all kinds of human activity are often conserved as archaeological find, relic, ruin or memorial. It is immediately evident, then, that the array of aesthetic experiences elicited by displayed reality is as broad as that of imitated reality. But that should not induce us to confuse imitated and displayed reality.

It matters, then, to adjust the terminology. Displayed reality is best designated with the term 'objet exposé' ('ready made'), whereas what uses to be called 'objet trouvé' should rather be called 'mimetic object'. Examples of displayed objects can then clearly be distinguished from imitated reality on the one hand, and design on the other hand:



It is obvious, then, that many an object that poses for a work of art, is in fact merely displayed reality. For concrete examples: see 'Applications: Mimesis and Reality'


Clearly to be distinguished from the art of making images is the art of making statements about the world. In its most developed forms, this art is known as philosophy or science. In contrast to the art of making images that conjure up worlds, philosophy and science make statements about the world.

Statements are normally made with words. That is why it is not immediately apparent when writers or poets are switching to making statements about the world, especially when the statements are well formulated. And that is also the case where the representations conjured up merely function as non-verbal signs: think of allegories or works like Voltaire's Candide.

From way back, not only representations are used for allegorical purposes: also real or imitated objects can serve the purpose. In the case of words, the transition from imitating to making statements does not catch the eye, because in both cases words are used. In the case of allegorical images, the transition does not catch the eye, because the beholder is in the first place - if not exclusively - interested in the image, and only in the second place in what it means. That is precisely the reason why many a visual allegory is experienced as being 'surrealistic' - an effect that immediately disappears as soon as the images are interpreted.

Visual allegories had practically disappeared in the plastic arts. Of all artists Marcel Duchamp - the man who wanted to get rid of an art for the retina in favour of an art for the brains - blew new life into this obsolete genre with his 'La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même'. All the elements in this work are symbols in an allegory about 'Eros'. In his anti-mimetic fervour, Marcel Duchamp made a further stride: he even replaced the imitated symbols with real ones, as in his bicycle wheel and other ready-mades. It is only in line with this anti-mimetic fervour that he thereby no longer makes statements about the world, but statements about the restricted domain of art. Therein, Marcel Duchamp has a meanwhile impressive row of descendants - and the rather modest scope of his statements has meanwhile taken somewhat larger proportions as with Wim Delvoye's 'Cloaca':

delvoye cloaca
delvoye cloaca (2000)

Also purely verbal statements have joined the feast: think of Magritte's 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' and 'Kosuth's 'One and three chairs'. As statements, most of them are either trivial or false, and as images they are not at all interesting: art in neither of both senses of the word. An extensive analysis of a single case is ''Iannis Kounellis: the Metamorphoses of Apollo''. Concrete examples: 'Mimesis and Statement'

A second sideway into 'symbolic reality' is the shift from the creation to the creative act itself under the auguries of Action Painting. That led to the unstoppable advent of real actions rather than real objects as symbols: happenings, events, Aktionen, performances in the sixties. We are dealing here with the performance (or in the best case: the staging) of symbolic actions, which, with figures like Nitsch and Beuys, take pseudo-religious allures. Also these symbolic actions can be analysed as allegories: after interpretation of the non-verbal symbols, we are dealing with statements about the world that do not belong to the realm of art. In as far as the non-verbal signs are images, we can appreciate the quality of mimesis as such - although we are no longer making judgements about plastic art then, but about (rudimentary forms of) theatre...

Also music could not escape such subordination under the regime of the symbol - the shift from mimesis to semiosis. Already in classical music, notes often function as numbers or letters with a symbolic freight (think of Bach). As a rule, this is only a means of lending an additional weight to a genuine work of art. But with figures like John Cage, music as such evaporates: ever since 4' 33'', he uses music - if not non-musical sounds or silence - as a mere means of making statements about music. An analysis of this shift is made in 'The Europeras of John Cage'.

Also here then: no extension of the realm of art, but a mere transgression into nearly related domains of human activity. Art as 'philosophy' is merely a new variant of the former allegories, although these nowadays seem to have a predilection for rather voluminous three-dimensional symbols, which is equally not new - think of the allegoric gardens. Otherwise than with design, where the transgression disclosed new dimensions (also and especially in the realm of aural design), we are dealing here with a veritable regression to the mythological of religious allegory. Where theatre was born through releasing itself from the fetters of the religious ritual, it nowadays pretends to return to it as to its veritable quintessence. And where genuine art could only unfold from the Renaissance onwards by releasing itself from the fetters of religious allegory, it nowadays regresses to the allegorical preliminary forms of art.

A general approach of this problematic can be found in 'On the difference between art and science/philosophy'.


Finally, there is also the problem of memories, (day)dreams, hallucinations and the like. No doubt, we are dealing here with mimesis. But these phenomena are spontaneous activities for private use, rather than products that have deliberately been produced to be perceived or imagined by more than one person. That is why we could hesitate to reckon them to the realm of art.

It would not be very difficult to exclude them from the realm of art. It would suffice to add the clause 'intersubjectively perceptible' to our definition of mimesis. But, to me, that would rather appear to be the umpteenth attempt to ban lower forms of mimesis from the realm of art. The relation of memories, (day)dreams and delusions with art is so obvious, that the essence of art can only be really understood when the continuity with these phenomena is not overlooked. That is why it seems more appropriate to include these phenomena as rudimentary forms of art, and to talk of completed art only when the image is intersubjectively perceptible or imaginable and is made in view of such intersubjective sharing.


However much the domain of art may be susceptible to historical changes, in contrast to what is commonly thought, the domain of (the) art (of making images) is sharply delineated.

It is, on the one hand, broader than is commonly acknowledged. All kinds of images which are excluded because of the nature of the world conjured up or of the poor quality of the image itself, should be included in the realm of art, and - if necessary - referred to the lower regions of that realm.

It is, on the other hand, narrower than commonly acknowledged. All kinds of design, all forms of displayed reality, and all forms of statements about the world, should be excluded, as well as all kinds of instrumental mimesis, in so far as they are conceived as a means to an outer end and not as a goal in itself.


It is not because stuffed animals have to be included in the realm of art, that their makers should be equalled with figures like Beethoven, Rubens or Shakespeare. And it is not because design and other forms of human activity have to be banned from the realm of art, that they would not be valuable - in as far as they are judged as design, or as philosophy and science. The cathedral of Chartres is not less valuable because it is design. And Kant's 'Kritik der Reinen Vernunft' remains a remarkable feat, although this 'world view' does not conjure up a world.

Although remarkable creations outside the realm of art are valuable in their own right, they seldom enjoy the same prestige as remarkable creations in the realm of art itself. The reason is that great art cannot fail to touch us in our deepest self, but also the fact that the artist is, precisely therefore, the last heir of what used to be called a genius.

Wherefore many a creator is out at adorning himself with the aura of the artist

© Stefan Beyst, December 2005.

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