Mimesis has been a cardinal concept for those traditions of aesthetics, from antiquity to the present, that focus on the status and value of artistic representation. The semantics of the Greek term mimēsis cover much more than simple imitation; its senses include resemblance, dramatic impersonation, and other species of correspondence or likeness. The idea of mimesis came to designate the relationship between certain art forms (poetry, dance, music, painting/sculpture) and the aspects of reality they are capable of depicting or evoking. Although some strands of mimeticist thinking appeal to standards of verisimilitude and mirroring, it is mistaken to reduce all models of mimesis to a single canon of realism.
Plato's highly influential approach to mimesis is less straightforward than usually claimed. From Cratylus to Laws, he applies the language of mimesis to numerous relationships of ontological and/or semantic dependence (even, in Timaeus, e.g., 39e, the whole material universe's dependence on a divine prototype). Mimetic entities match, but never reproduce, their exemplars; the relationship can be construed as "qualitative," not "mathematical" (Cratylus 432). In representational art, moreover, those exemplars may be (partially) imaginative/fictive: witness, for example, the idealized painting that furnishes a metaphor for philosophy at Republic 472d. When, in Republic 10, Socrates notoriously critiques the mirror-like limitations of mimetic poetry and painting, locating artistic images at two removes from "the truth," his argument does not convict all mimesis of worthlessness but provocatively challenges lovers of art to identify a moral justification that transcends pleasure at merely simulated appearances (and the emotions they can excite). As Sophist 235d–6c, distinguishing eikastic (objective) from phantastic (viewer-dependent) mimesis, shows, Plato does not ascribe a uniform rationale to all artistic representation. At a psychological and cultural level, arguments such as Republic 392c–401a suggest that the impact of mimesis necessarily reflects the qualities of the supposed reality it projects.
Aristotle explicitly accepts that the contents of mimetic art, both musicopoetic and visual, can legitimately vary between the actual, the putative, and the ideal (Poetics 25). Regarding mimesis as an instinctual factor in the human need to model and understand the world, he embeds it in an anthropology of cognition that stretches from children's play to philosophy (Poetics 4). He also appreciates the powerful emotional effects of mimetic works on their audiences, a point equally illustrated by the Poetics and by the treatment of music as mimetic (i.e., affectively expressive) in Politics 8.5; for him, the passions, when well induced, are a medium of ethical judgment. Furthermore, Aristotle has a dual-aspect conception of mimesis that allows him to distinguish—more than Plato had done—between internal (work-centered) and external (truth-related) criteria of mimetic value. The resulting aesthetics is, importantly, neither formalist nor moralist.
Hellenistic and later Greek philosophers continued to grapple with epistemological and ethical issues raised by mimesis. Especially notable is Neoplatonism's ambivalent engagement with the concept; Plotinus, for instance, who discerned mimetic relationships hierarchically structuring all reality, disparaged much actual art yet allowed some artistic mimesis, qua creative intuition, to grasp the authentic forms of nature (Enneads 5.8.1). The legacy of this and other ancient versions of mimesis was revived in the Renaissance; it has remained a vital element in debates about the complex position of representational art between the poles of truth and fiction, realism, and imagination.
See also Art, Representation in.
Halliwell, Stephen. The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Janaway, Christopher. Images of Excellence: Plato's Critique of the Arts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Sörbom, G. Mimesis and Art. Stockholm: Svenska Bokförlaget, 1966.
Stephen Halliwell (2005)
mi·me·sis / məˈmēsis; mī-/ • n. formal or technical imitation, in particular: ∎ representation or imitation of the real world in art and literature. ∎ the deliberate imitation of the behavior of one group of people by another as a factor in social change. ∎ Zool. another term for mimicry.