Mimesis (μίμησις from μιμεîσθαι) in its simplest context means "imitation" or "representation" in Greek. Both Plato and Aristotle recognized it as an important component of art and aesthetics. However, while Plato gave it a negative assessment based on his realism of Ideas, Aristotle gave it a more favorable and comprehensive analysis within the contexts of diverse art forms.
In Plato's metaphysics, permanent and immutable Ideas have the highest value, which exist independently of and transcend the phenomenal world in which humanity lives. The material world, which is temporal and mutable, does not possess value in itself. Rather, its value is determined to the extent things in the material form exhibit those Ideas that they represent. In Plato's view, art as the imitation of things in the phenomenal world, which are already less real, is less valuable in that it is twice removed from Ideas.
Aristotle rejected Plato's metaphysics and its built-in value theory. Aristotle recognized imitation as the essential component in human growth, education, and various artistic activities. For example, Aristotle argued, contrary to Plato, that the arts have a certain healing power because they are imaginative, and that the healing (catharsis) of tragedy is generated only because they are imitative and detached from reality.
Both Plato and Aristotle saw, in mimesis (Greek μίμησις), the representation of nature. Plato wrote about mimesis in both Ion and The Republic (Books I & II and Book X). Plato has two different complaints about the poet. In Ion, he states that poetry is the art of divine madness, or inspiration. This is one level of the imitation. Mimesis can be dangerous because the poet or actor engages in imitation, and can inspire those who listen into the same state of inspiration.
Because of this, it is not the function of the poet to convey the truth. In Plato's system, truth is the concern of the philosopher only. In Ancient Greece, the tradition of poetry was not one of reading, but of performance, the recitals of orators or the acting out by classical actors of tragedy or comedy. Plato maintained in his critique that theater was not sufficient in conveying the truth. He was concerned that actors or orators were thus able to persuade an audience by rhetoric rather than by telling the truth.
In Book II of The Republic, Plato describes, through Socrates’ dialogue with his pupils, his reason for banning the poet from his ideal society. Socrates warns that one should not seriously regard poetry as capable of attaining the truth and that those who listen to poetry should be on their guard against its seductions, in as much as that the poet has no place in any idea of God.
In developing this in Book X, Plato tells of Socrates' metaphor of the maker of beds, the carpenter who is compared with God, the maker of Earth and Heaven and everything on it:
There are three beds: One existing in nature (a manifestation of the Platonic ideal bed or Idea of bed; Platonic Ideas exist eternally, prior to, and independently of the nature); one made by the artistic imitator of the Idea, the carpenter; and one made by the painter or poet, who when copying the carpenter's work in their work become imitators thrice removed from the truth.
The copiers only touch on a small part of things as they really are, where a bed may appear differently from various points of view, looked at obliquely or directly, or differently again in a mirror. So painters or poets, though they may paint or describe a carpenter or any other maker of things, know nothing of the craftsman’s art, and though the better painters or poets they are, the more faithfully their works of art will resemble the reality of the carpenter making a bed, nonetheless the imitators will still not attain the truth.
The poets, beginning with Homer, far from improving and educating humanity, do not possess the knowledge of craftsmen and are mere imitators who copy again and again images of virtue and rhapsodize about them, but never reach the truth in the way the superior philosophers do.
The irony of Plato's hostility to the problem of mimesis is that his antidote is mimesis. To the problem of bad behavior represented by the poet, he juxtaposes the good role model, who will engender a positive-type of imitation.
Aristotle's Poetics is often referred to as the counterpart to this Platonic conception of poetry. Poetics is his treatise on the subject of mimesis. Aristotle did not share Plato's hostility toward mimesis; he argued that human beings are mimetic beings, feeling an urge to create texts (art) that reflect and represent reality.
Aristotle argued that the purpose of tragedy was catharsis. Aristotle was not concerned that art was an imitation of reality. For catharsis to occur, there has to be a certain distance between the work of art on the one hand and life on the other; he argued that people draw knowledge and consolation from tragedies only because they do not happen directly to them. Without this distance, tragedy could not give rise to catharsis. However, it is equally important that the text causes the audience to identify with the characters and the events in the text, and unless this identification occurs, it does not touch the audience. Aristotle holds that it is through simulated representation, or mimesis, that people respond to the acting on the stage which is conveying what the characters feel, so that the audience may empathize with them in this way through the mimetic form of dramatic roleplay. It is the task of the dramatist to produce the tragic enactment in order to accomplish this empathy by means of what is taking place on stage. The result is an emotional catharsis, in which the hearer can achieve an emotional release, a purging of negative emotions.
In short, catharsis can only be achieved if the audience sees something that is both recognizable and distant. Aristotle argued that literature is more interesting as a means of learning than history, because history deals with specific facts that have happened, and which are contingent, whereas literature, although sometimes based on history, deals with events that could have taken place, or ought to have taken place.
Aristotle thought of drama as "an imitation of an action," of tragedy as "falling from a higher to a lower estate," and so being removed to a less ideal situation in more tragic circumstances than before. He posited the characters in tragedy as being better than the average human being, and those of comedy as being worse.
It was also Plato and Aristotle who contrasted mimesis with diegesis (Greek διήγησις). Mimesis shows rather than tells, by means of directly-represented action that is enacted. Diegesis, however, is the telling of the story by a narrator; the author narrates action indirectly and describes what is in the characters' minds and emotions. The narrator may speak as a particular character or may be the invisible narrator or even the all-knowing narrator who speaks from above in the form of commenting on the action or the characters.
In Book III of his Republic (c. 373 B.C.E.), Plato examines the "style" of "poetry" (the term includes comedy, tragedy, epic, and lyric poetry): All types of narrate events, he argues, but by differing means. He distinguishes between narration or report (diegesis) and imitation or representation (mimesis). Tragedy and comedy, he goes on to explain, are wholly imitative types; the dithyramb is wholly narrative; and their combination is found in epic poetry. When reporting or narrating, "the poet is speaking in his own person; he never leads us to suppose that he is any one else;" when imitating, the poet produces an "assimilation of himself to another, either by the use of voice or gesture." In dramatic texts, the poet never speaks directly; in narrative texts, the poet speaks as his or herself.
In his Poetics, Aristotle argues that kinds of "poetry" (the term includes drama, flute music, and lyre music for Aristotle) may be differentiated in three ways: According to their medium, according to their objects, and according to their mode or manner (section I); "For the medium being the same, and the objects the same, the poet may imitate by narration—in which case he can either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in his own person, unchanged—or he may present all his characters as living and moving before us" (section III).
Though they conceive of mimesis in quite different ways, its relation with diegesis is identical in Plato's and Aristotle's formulations; one represents, the other reports; one embodies, the other narrates; one transforms, the other indicates; one knows only a continuous present, the other looks back on a past.
In the arts, mimesis is considered to be re-presenting the human emotions in new ways and thus representing to the onlooker, listener or reader the inherent nature of these emotions and the psychological truth of the work of art.
Mimesis is thus thought to be a means of perceiving the emotions of the characters on stage or in the book; or the truth of the figures as they appear in sculpture or in painting; or the emotions as they are being configured in music, and of their being recognized by the onlooker as part of their human condition.
Mimesis and catharsis are two basic notions on which Freud relies to explain the psychological intricacy of the relation between the author and his work, the hero and the reader/spectator as the process of literary creation is akin to that of dreaming awake. Charles Mauron starts from this fundamental theory to propose a structured method to analyze the unconscious roots and purpose of artistic creation. Identification and empathy are unconscious dynamic processes that account for the acting out of taboos. The creator and the reader/spectator symbolically identify and expurgate similar repressed desires, whether they be biographical or archetypal. Thus, when one reads about Proust's oral emotions reminding him of his aunt Leonie, the reader shares a similar affect. The hero is but an avatar of the artist's double.
A significant example of the intuitive use of this poetic function is the pantomime or play-within-the-play in Shakespeare's Hamlet: The acknowledged aim is to provoke Claudius and expose his guilt. But at the same time, this will be the only action Hamlet will be able to take. It dramatizes his inner conflict: Through it, he both achieves the murderous desire and identifies with the murderer.
In sculpture, mimesis manifests the three-dimensional plasticity of an image an onlooker has with which he can empathize within a given situation. In Rodin's The Kiss, for example, the protective arms of the male and seeming trustfulness of the female figure enclosed within her partner's limbs, down to the stance of their feet, is a position viewers would recognize immediately in that the trust and truth that permeates the erotic element of the statue is that which is entailed in the relationship of any man and woman in a similar situation.
In Picasso's Guernica, the artist re-presents the destruction of life and the terror it causes in a way this kind of cubistic image lends itself to most dramatically. The fractured details of the composition, the tortured faces, the screams that may be almost audibly imagined, the terrified horse, the bull, the dismembered limbs: All these things help to make the picture most memorable for the truth it brings to the observer. However, the face of the woman holding a light may be seen either as a face of stoic resignation throwing light on the devastation, or a face of Luciferous evil swooping in malevolent satisfaction.
In Beethoven's 6th Symphony (the Pastoral), music re-presents the various stages of a stay in the country, of a person's emotions and moods that are metamorphosed into movements of music most faithfully corresponding to these emotions. Thus, the pleasurable anticipation on arrival in the country; the various happy scenes of their associating with country folk; a shepherd's song; birdsongs; a storm and the thankfulness after it is over; all will be observed and recognized readily by the audience.
In ludology, mimesis is sometimes used to refer to the self-consistency of a represented world, and the availability of in-game rationalisations for elements of the gameplay. In this context mimesis has an associated grade: highly self-consistent worlds that provide explanations for their puzzles and game mechanics are said to display a higher degree of mimesis.
This usage can be traced back to the essay, "Crimes against Mimesis."
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