A Critical Examination of the Notions of Art  as “Imitation of Nature” and “Re-Creation of Reality”

By Roger E. Bissell

July 20, 1974

The purpose of this paper is to critically consider two related theories of the nature of art.[i] The two theories in question are the ancient theory of art as imitation of nature and the more modern one of art as re-creation of reality.

As this paper will show, these theories are similar first of all not only in their standard, mistaken interpretations, but also in the type of criticisms directed against them. It is the further contention of this paper that they are intimately related in terms of the way that they must be re-interpreted in order to be properly understood, and to avoid the criticisms directed against their standard formulations.

I.           Art as “Imitation of Nature”

The imitation theory is traditionally alleged to maintain that the artist copies or reproduces things, people, and events from reality, making an image which is an “imitation” of them. Commenting on the imitation theory, philosopher Susanne Langer says:

It is natural enough, perhaps, for naïve reflection to center first of all round the relationship between an image and its object; and equally natural to treat a picture, statue, or a graphic description as an imitation of reality…The problem of “imitation,” or reproducing the appearance of a model, has harassed philosophers ever since Plato censured art as a “copy of a copy.”[ii]

Such a traditional view of esthetic imitation is also presented by Monroe C. Beardsley:

[T]he famous aesthetic judgment…of the picture on Achilles’ shield…hints at the beginning of wonder about imitation, i.e., the relation between representation and object, or appearance and reality…Plato seems also to regard paintings, dramatic poems, and songs as imitations in a narrower sense: they are images…One kind of making is imitation, which Aristotle seems to take fairly straightforwardly as representation of objects or events.[iii]

Against such a view of imitation, one cannot better begin than with the famous words of Aristotle himself: “In general, then, art in a sense completes what nature is unable to finish, and in a sense imitates nature.”[iv]

John Herman Randall, Jr. further explains Aristotle’s view:

Aristotle does not mean that art “mimics” nature: art does not imitate nature’s products—that would be quite impossible…[I]t could not possibly make an oak tree or beget a man. Rather, art does imitate nature’s productive activities. It must be remembered that “nature” for Aristotle is a way of acting, and what art imitates is that way…Art does better, more successfully, just what nature does or tries to do; it brings that which is possible in materials to a realization, and thus “completes nature.”[v] [my emphasis]

Giorgio Tonelli goes a step beyond this and says: “The artist is not an imitator of nature in the sense that he copies it…[H]e imitates nature in the process of creating a world or a whole.[vi] [my emphasis]

Here Tonelli touches on a crucial concept for the philosophy of art, a concept dating back to the ancient Greeks, namely, that of a microcosm: “the notion that the structure of the universe can be reflected on a smaller scale in some particular phenomenon…”[vii] As variously formulated by the ancient Greeks, the theory of the structure of the universe, cosmology, is very likely the basis upon which the doctrine of art as imitation of nature was developed, “if we take imitation in its liberal and true meaning, not as the duplication of isolated things, but as the active attempt to participate in a superior perfection.”[viii] [my emphasis]

These ancient cosmologists sought a “Unique Principle which should bind together all possible objects within [their] horizon and show them as related expressions of a fundamental law.”[ix] They typically sought to arrive at “a general theory of the world which puts man and nature into intimate relations with each other and which judges the world in the light of human procedures and values…”[x]

On such a man-oriented cosmology, the notion of “imitation” was bound to be applied to the relation between art and nature. To the ancient Greeks, art was recognized as nothing less than a concrete embodiment of their cosmological (metaphysical) view of man and existence.

II.        Art as “Re-creation of Reality”

The re-creation theory is often similarly misunderstood as holding that the essence of art is the copying or reproducing of things, people, and events from reality, making an image which is a “re-creation” of them. Again Susanne Langer provides what seems to be a telling critique:

[A]n object that already exists—a vase o flowers, a living person—cannot be re-created. It would have to be destroyed to be re-created. Besides, a picture is neither a person nor a vase of flowers. It is an image, created for the first time out of things that are not imagined, but quite realistic—canvas or paper, and paints or carbon and ink.[xi] [my emphasis]

Her remarks are echoed by John Hospers, who writes:

“Art is a re-creation of reality”—but is all art a re-creation of something, even music? (One would have thought that it was the creation of something, that is, a series of tonal relationships that never existed in that order before the composer created them.) And in what sense does music deal with reality?[xii] [my emphasis]

In response to these criticisms, one should first note that they are directed specifically toward the naïve re-creation theory pertaining to things from reality. Not only are they dubious arguments, revolving on an ambiguity in the meaning of the term “re-create,” but more importantly, they do not deal with the formulation of art as a re-creation of reality.

What exactly does “re-creation of reality” mean—as opposed to the re-creation of an aspect of reality, that is? The American College Dictionary defines “re-create” as: to create anew.[xiii] It further defines “create” as: to bring into existence, and “anew” as: (1) again; or (2) in a new form. Thus, “re-create” can mean either: (1) to bring into existence again (that which no longer exists), or (2) to bring into existence in a new form (that which exists, or did exist, or will exist, or might exist, in some other form).

In the fundamental philosophical sense of the term, “reality” means: that which exists independently of ideas concerning it. In alternate terms, it also means: that which is real, or (since “real” means: being an actual thing with objective existence): that which is an actual thing with objective existence.[xiv] Thus, reality is the universe, the totality of that which exists, the concrete, actual world of entities, their actions and attributes.

Since this objective reality does exist, “re-creation of reality” cannot mean: “bringing reality into existence again.” First, reality is everything which exists, and it exists now; so anything additional which comes to exist is merely an augmentation of reality, not a re-creation of it, in this sense.

Secondly, such a “re-creation” could not be made from a void, but only from previously existing elements of reality. Thus, it is actually not a re-creation of reality, but rather the bringing into existence of a duplicate of a previous state of reality, minus those elements taken to construct the duplicate (which isnecessarily one-half of that previous state). Such an unlikely state of affairs is not the simultaneous existence of two realities, therefore, but only one reality consisting of two identical halves, one of which has been constructed from what were previously elements of the now-diminished other.

Instead, “re-creation of reality” must mean: “bringing reality into existence in a new form.” But in what other form than its concrete, actual form might reality exist?

The answer is to be found in the area of psychology dealing with the cognitive awareness of reality. Man is capable of narrowing his mental focus to some aspect of reality, some segment of his field of awareness, and to regard that segment as if it were a world or universe, a reality, as if nothing else existed and it were all that existed. (This is the esthetic attitude or mental set, a psychological pre-condition of esthetic experience.)

It is further possible that a given segment of reality may display what a person regards as most fundamentally significant or important about reality, the irrelevant or insignificant aspects somehow absent. Such a segment of reality is thus a microcosm: a particular phenomenon which reflects the structure of the universe on a smaller scale, in reference of course to that person’s own, perhaps tacit, cosmology (metaphysics).

Were the person to view that segment of reality, that microcosm, he would have the distinct impression that he were viewing reality itself—not ”a reality,” but “the reality”—only in an enhanced and clarified manner, purified of all the irrelevant, distracting elements. Of course, this impression is just that: an impression, a semblance of “the reality,” or rather: (the) reality in semblance-form, rather than actual-form.

Man is capable of creating concretes (entities and/or events which involve them or are caused by them) which are semblance-forms of reality. That is, he is capable of creating reality in a semblance-form. Since this created semblance-form of reality is a new form of existence, different from that of which it is a semblance, we speak of it as a “re-creation of reality.”

Returning to Langer’s critique of the naïve formulation of the re-creation theory, one can now see that even though it is not the fundamental re-creation in the picture, the vase or the living person is indeed re-created. The sense of “re-create” which Langer attacks, “being brought into existence again,” is only one of the possibilities.

The other sense of “re-create,” the one developed in this paper, is that of being brought into existence in a new form, which the vase and the living person certainly are. The picture, then, is at once the creation of an image (as Langer maintains), the re-creation of a person or vase (as Langer denies), and the re-creation of reality (assuming, of course, that the picture can be a microcosm for someone).

The question of what things from reality can be found re-create in music is not so easy to answer, once one exhausts the trivial category of effects including the mimicking of the call of the cuckoo, the rumble of the thunderstorm etc. The answer seems to lie in music’s ability to give rise to sensory and mental processes with qualities and interrelationships which bear qualitative and structural analogy to those in, for instance, our visual experience and our mental grasping of goal-directed series of events. A full development of this approach to the problem of meaning, or representation, in music is regrettably beyond the scope of this short paper.[xv]

More broadly, it is not yet clear whether the secondary re-creation of entities, actions, and attributes from reality is a necessary condition for all man-made objects or series of events (as in music or drama) to be perceived as re-creations of reality. If it is not necessary, the question also rises as to whether an image of an entity may not be inherently more capable of serving as a re-creation of reality, than an image of something other than an entity (when both types of image are possible to the art-form). Since it would involve a penetrating study of the nature of esthetic symbols and their referents (in other words, the problem of esthetic representation), this inquiry, too, is beyond the present paper’s scope.[xvi]

III.     Summary

Our concern here, though more restricted than those outlined in the close of the previous section, is much broader in scope. It involves the recognition that art—insofar as it lends itself to be perceived as a microcosm, as a world-in-miniature, as a semblance-form of reality—is a re-creation of reality.

To that same extent an artist may be said to engage in the imitation of nature. In this, no matter what the specific “imitations” or “re-creations” to be found in artworks, the theories of “art as imitation of nature” and of “art as re-creation of reality” are seen to be intimately related, complementary, fundamental theories of the nature of art.


[i] Special added notes for 2008 Internet posting: (1) This essay is material from a chapter of a book project on esthetics commissioned by Equity Incorporated (Milo Schield, Douglas Rasmussen, and Joel Myklebust) in 1971 and finally completed in 1991 under the title Esthetics Objectively. The material was originally part of an essay, “Some Thoughts Preceding the Performance of a Work for Unaccompanied Trombone,” presented in April 1974 at an Equitarian Associates conference on esthetics in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (See also my essay “Notes on the Baroque Suite.”) (2) It was then re-written as a stand-alone essay and submitted in July 1974 to Reason Papers, but rejected for publication at that time. The microcosm thesis was considered by an anonymous, pre-publication reader as being tautologous and as not providing significant clarification of Rand’s view of art. I discovered much later (about 2003) that Allan and Joan Mitchell Blumenthal had made essentially the same point about the nature of art as microcosm in their excellent 1974 lecture course Music: Theory, History, Performance. (3) Revised versions of this material have also appeared in published form in my essays “The Essence of Art” (Objectivity, 1998) and “Art as Microcosm” (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, 2004). Related material also appears in my essay “Camus and Langer: Unexpected post-Kantian affinities to Rand’s aesthetics” (JARS 2005).

[ii] Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), pp. 46, 76.

[iii] Monroe C. Beardsley, “History of Aesthetics,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), I, pp. 18, 20, 22.

[iv] Aristotle, Physics II, 8.199a, 10-18.

[v] John Herman Randall, Jr., Aristotle (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), pp. 275-276.

[vi] Giorgio Tonelli, “Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I, p. 256.

[vii] Katherine Everett Gilbert and Helmut Kuhn, A History of Esthetics (2nd ed; New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1972), p. 6.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid, p. 3.

[x] Ibid, p. 5.

[xi] Langer, p. 46.

[xii] John Hospers, “Problems of Aesthetics,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I, p. 52.

[xiii] American College Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1964).

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Important elements to such an approach are to be found seeded throughout the following works: Eduard Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music, ed. Morris Weitz, trans. Gustav Cohen (The Library of Liberal Arts; New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1957); Langer; Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956); Meyer, Music, the Arts and Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967); Meyer and Grosvenor W. Cooper, The Rhythmic Structure of Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); Deryck Cooke, The Language of Music (London: Oxford Paperbacks, 1962); Edward A. Lippman, “Music and Space: A Study in the Philosophy of Music” (microfilmed Ph.D. dissertation, Dept. of Philosophy, Columbia University, 1952).

[xvi] I will deal with the broader context of this issue in a forthcoming essay entitled “Linguistic and Esthetic Symbols: Their Relation to Knowledge and to Reality.” A section of the essay will deal specifically with the problem of musical meaning.