Play-Doh! My Oh Mimesis!

I pointed out in an earlier essay that mimesis is something that I haven’t covered, yet should cover. Why? Well, it’s just that important when it comes to art, as well as landscapes. Before I really get into it, it’s worth addressing the word itself, that is to say ask the question: what is mimesis? Let’s have a look at a dictionary, in this case the Oxford English Dictionary, (OED, s.v. “mimesis”, n.) first:

“Imitation; spec. the representation or imitation of the real world in (a work of) art, literature, etc.”

Ah, yes, in other words it’s about imitation or representation. If you have read contemporary research on landscapes, almost anything starting from the 1970s and 1980s, be it in the Francophone or the Anglophone circles, representation should be a familiar word to you already. Other notes worthy of including here is the Greek origin, having been borrowed from Greek μίμησις. I’ll get back to that soon, but I’ll add something more contemporary here first. Edmund Burke (28-29) discusses imitation in his book ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’ in section 16, aptly titled ‘Imitation’:

“The second passion belonging to society is imitation, or if you will, a desire of imitating, and consequently a pleasure in it. This passion arises from much the same cause with sympathy. For as sympathy makes us take a concern in whatever men feel, so this affection prompts us to copy whatever they do; and consequently we have a pleasure in imitating, and in whatever belongs to imitation merely as it is such, without any intervention of the reasoning faculty, but solely from our natural constitution, which providence has framed in such a manner as to find either pleasure or delight according to the nature of the object, in whatever regards the purposes of our being. It is by imitation far more than by precept that we learn every thing; and what we learn thus we acquire not only more effectually, but more pleasantly. This forms our manners, our opinions, our lives. It is one of the strongest links of society; it is a species of mutual compliance which all men yield to each other, without constraint to themselves, and which is extremely flattering to all.”

Now, that is a long passage, a passage that takes a bit of digesting, so do feel free to read it a couple of times. The point he is making is about copying or imitating and the pleasure we take in it. There’s also a bit that reminds of the expression, best known in the form of ‘[i]mitation is the sincerest of flattery’, as expressed by Charles Caleb Colton (113) in his book titled ‘Lacon: Or, Many Things in Few Words: Addressed to Those who Think’. If you look this up, it is typically attributed to Oscar Wilde, but that’s not the case. Just look up the book by Colton and you’ll see. Apparently, Wilde suggested an addendum to it, adding “…that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” I can’t confirm if he did or didn’t because I can’t find an actual source for that. It’s possibly one of those things that keeps getting repeated enough times for people to think he did express such. The closest thing to such that I could find is that in ‘The Decay Of Lying: An Observation’ he has one character, Cyril, state to another character, Vivian that:

“I can quite understand your objection to art being treated as a mirror. You think it would reduce genius to the position of a cracked looking glass. But you don’t mean to say that you seriously believe that Life imitates Art, that Life in fact is the mirror, and Art the reality?”

Only to have Vivian reply to Cyril:

“Certainly I do. Paradox though it may seem – and paradoxes are always dangerous things – it is none the less true that Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life. … A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it, in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher.”

If you want to look this up, this can be found, for example, in the 1905 compilation work ‘Intentions’ on page 32. As this has a lot to do with the Greeks, as pointed out in the dictionary definition of mimesis, I’ll let Wilde (33) continue, still on Vivian’s turn to speak to Cyril:

“Hence came their objection to realism. They disliked it on purely social grounds. They felt that it inevitably makes people ugly, and they were perfectly right.”

As the passage is quite a bit longer than what I included here, it’s worth clarifying that by they he is referring to the Greeks. Anyway, so, right, if Wilde did not ever express the said addendum to Colton, he surely could have as he surely wasn’t too fond of imitation, it being, after all, whatever makes people ugly. Right, back to Burke then, who (29) continues where I cut off his discussion of imitation:

“Herein it is that painting and many other agreeable arts have laid one of the principal foundations of their power. I shall here venture to lay down a rule, which inform us with a good degree of certainty when we are to attribute the power of the arts, to imitation, or to our pleasure of the skill of the imitator merely, and when to sympathy, or some other cause in conjunction with it. When the object represented in poetry or painting is such, as we could have no desire of seeing in reality; then I may be sure that it’s power in poetry or painting is owing to the power of imitation, and to no cause operating in the thing itself.”

He (29-30) then continues this, providing a number of examples:

“So it is with most of the pieces which the painters call Still life. In these a cottage, a dunghill, the meanest and the most ordinary utensils of the kitchen, are capable of giving us pleasure.”

Here Burke is expressing that the power of imitation can be a strong one, considering that it can render the items such as kitchen utensils from mundane to pleasurable. It’s not really that the objects are particularly interesting, I mean hardly so, but that the depiction of them is so detailed that you find them pleasurable. While there’s more to still lifes, or Stillleben, than what’s discussed here, it’s worth noting that they are typically incredibly detailed, to the point that you might just as well think that they are photographs. They look like the real deal. Just look that up and you’ll see. Okay, you might object here, but just imagine such back in the day, when there were no cameras around. Anyway, Burke (30) does go on to add that:

“But when the object of the painting or poem is such as we should run to see if real, let it affect us with what odd sort of sense it will, we may rely upon it, that the power of the poem or the picture is more owing to the nature of the thing itself than to the mere effect of imitation, or to a consideration of the skill of the imitator however excellent.”

So, the way I read this, as well as what has been stated so far, is that we are fond of imitation and imitations. Now Burke (28-29) may well be off in his statement that it’s an inherent part of us, part of our “natural constitution”, or some might say a priori, that doesn’t mean that we don’t think that way, by and large. It’s of course a bit ironic, if we take what Colton and Wilde have to say on this. So, in other words, we are fond of imitations not only because they are impressive in their attention to detail but also because they are flattering. Importantly, that is if I interpret this right, Burke (30) also adds that it’s not the mere imitation, that one is impressed by the copy, that impresses us, but that we take it to be real, not a mere copy of something, pushing the imitation to a next level. As Burke notes (30), it’s not that the imitation or the skill involved doesn’t matter. It’s rather that what is represented seems, as if, presented instead of merely represented. It’s just that good that we want to run and see for ourselves. Anyway, in summary, what I take from all of this, so far, is that it’s hardly unfathomable that what is depicted by an artist, say a landscape painter or more contemporarily a photographer, ends up taken as not only a mere representation of something, but a presentation of it, not a copy of the real but the real itself. It matters not that the two are not the same thing. What matters is that we are in the habit of falling for ‘The Treachery of Images’, if you know what I mean.

As I mentioned earlier on, mimesis is originally a Greek word. It’s also deeply rooted in Greek philosophy. For example, Plato addresses it in book X of the ‘Republic’. The pagination used here is based on a copy a translation by Benjamin Jowett dating to 1888, titled as ‘The Republic of Plato’. In the relevant segment, there are two indicated interlocutors, Socrates and Glaucon, with Socrates being the prominent one of the two. Plato (308-309) brings up a tripartite categorization, stating that whatever it is that is at stake, the idea, is first and foremost made by the maker, God, followed by whoever it happens to be that actualizes it, makes the ideal actual, particularizes it, “in accordance with the idea”, and whoever it happens to be that depicts whatever it is that is actualized. The examples provided have to do with carpentry, tables and beds, with a thorough discussion on who makes a bed, God, followed by a carpenter, followed by a painter or a poet. Plato (310) emphasizes that it is God who makes only one bed, the idea of the bed, as if there were two beds instead of one, there would always a third bed behind the two beds, hence just only one bed. It’s worth noting, as well as emphasizing, that in this formulation the second in the series, the carpenter, is not an imitator but a human maker, as pointed out by Plato (310). The third in the series, the painter or the poet, is thus the imitator. To be more specific, Plato (310-311) indicates that a painter, or a poet, imitates the appearance of things, as they appear, not as they are. He (311) then brings up the deception of imitation:

“For example: A painter will paint a cobbler, carpenter, or any other artist, though he knows nothing of their arts; and, if he is a good artist, he may deceive children or simple persons, when he shows them this picture of a carpenter from a distance, and they will fancy that they are looking at a real carpenter.”

To add something here, to clarify things a bit, I reckon it’s worth noting that back in the day, when Plato wrote ‘The Republic’, while certainly impressive, paintings were hardly as mimetic as, for example, more contemporary oil paintings. They didn’t exactly manage to pull off photorealism back then. It’s also worth clarifying that when Plato (312) refers to artists, he speaks of the second in the series, such as carpenters who are “interested in realities and not in imitations[.]” In this sense, one needs to reconsider what is meant by art here. Artists make art, which is not imitation of something else. Anyway, back to the topic, Plato (314) puts this rather simply:

“The imitator or maker of the image knows nothing of true existence; he knows appearances only.”

And (317):

“The imitative art is an inferior who marries an inferior, and has inferior offspring.”

I don’t think it’s necessary to further elaborate Plato’s views on painters and poets, what we might call artists, those producing art, but which Plato does not. In summary, he is not convinced that those who paint or write can have anything true to depict or say, for they only imitate appearances, never really grasping it, actualizing the ideas. That said, he (316) does acknowledge that appearances matter:

“And still [the imitative artist] will go on imitating without knowing what makes a thing good or bad, and may be expected therefore to imitate only that which appears to be good to the ignorant multitude.”

In other words, the imitator only serves the masses who are allured by the imitation, taking it to be the real deal, presentational instead of representational. This is, I believe the point also made by Burke (30). It also matters little here whether Plato is correct about there being ideas out there or not. It’s sort of beside the point of this discussion. What’s important about this, in summary, is that we tend to be fond of imitation, as expressed by both Plato (311, 316) and Burke (30).

I’ve been trying to keep things short recently and I won’t go on about this further here. I realize that I haven’t really addressed what Aristotle has to say about this, nor a host of others, but I have to stop somewhere. This time it’s here. Perhaps I’ll address this again in more detail later on. Anyway, as indicated in the first few paragraphs, I wanted to address mimesis, i.e. imitation or representation, because I think a certain familiarity with it is required in order to grasp the importance of landscape as representation, as typically depicted in landscape paintings. In summary, connecting the dots here, mimesis is particularly important because it explains why, in Lefebvrian terms, the representations of space are particularly influential on representional space, how we come encounter space in everyday life.


  • Burke, E. (1757). A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. London, United Kingdom: R. and J. Dodsley.
  • Colton, C. C. ([1824] 1837). Lacon: Or, Many Things in Few Words: Addressed to Those who Think. London, United Kingdom: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longmans.
  • Lefebvre, H. ([1974/1984] 1991). The Production of Space (D. Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
  • Magritte, R. (1928/1929). La Trahison des Images.
  • Oxford English Dictionary Online (n. d.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Plato ([c. 375 BCE] 1888). The Republic of Plato (B. Jowett, Trans.). Oxford, United Kingdom: The Clarendon Press.
  • Wilde, O. ([1891] 1905). The Decay of Lying: An Observation. In O. Wilde, Intentions (pp. 1–55). New York, NY: Brentano’s.