Saturday, January 28, 2006

Imitation and a Cultural Aesthetic

You make a good point, China; there are certainly cases that art is imitative. I guess that what I resist the idea that it is *always* imitative. That is, there are many times (take Van Gogh's renderings of his Room at Arles) when an artist will paint a craftsman's work but ask us to view it differently. So while it has the capacity to imitate, like you are talking about, it is not in essence imitative, for it will not always do so. It's a fine line.

Also, speaking about culture and art - I think it is really easy to see how our aesthetic sense is culturally conditioned in fashion. I would argue that some of the "high" fashion houses' clothes are art (they are creative, often provocative, often beautiful). Looking at how fashions change from season to season, year to year, and decade to decade can be incredibly revealing. Every ten years or so, there are a couple of collections that re-attune our aesthetic senses; the pattern is clear, as one issue of Vogue pointed out. A controversial new shape enters the fashion realm and people hate it at first. But, as time wears on, they begin to see its beauty and indeed emulate it. Take Marc Jacobs Fall 2005 collection (follow link). Called "lumpenly ugly" and full of "prom dresses for pregnant teenagers," it sold remarkably well and is already rippling through other collections. A collection like this overturns and reconditions our sense of the beautiful.

I just find it really interesting to watch fashion as a cultural register of sorts, because it is so visible and updates itself twice a year. More conventional forms of art take much longer to sort themselves out - books take years to write and more time to publish, paintings must make their ways into galleries and then people have to see them, but fashion is thrown at us in magazines, on tv, and in stores.


Blogger China said...

You know, I'd thought about (your first response) a bit after equating art with imitation. I came up with two ideas:

1. Even if the artist wishes the audience to view his work differently than the craftsman's, I think that the possibility of the artist's view had to have always existed at some point with the craftsman's work in order to take shape later on with the artist. Or the original creator's work, for that matter. For instance, take fashion; let's say the craftsman creates a flowing blue dress that is meant to represent beauty, the ocean, peace, etc., but the artist creates a sculpture or painting of that dress and claims that the image of the dress and its abundance of fabric represents the smothering of one who wears it, that the wearer drowns in it and becomes invisible. The artist might ask you to see things differently and form a different idea than you would have had with the original object, but the possibility of that idea must have been there in the first place, with the original object, to have formed - thus, the artist cannot be entirely abstract and original in his creation.

2. The one argument to my argument is when there exists no ultimate creator - I'd actually been thinking about this because I'm trying to form an atheist response to creation - and the artist has only the craftsman AS creator to follow. If there is no ultimate creator, and the craftsman were to come up with ideas through original thought, then the artist would take over as craftsman, in which case you might be able to say that art is not imitation but a new interpretation of the original creation. This could only work if the craftsman took over as creator and were no longer the middle man, though.

5:56 PM  
Blogger Dolen said...

Hey Sarah...try inserting the link using the command in the post editor. Highlight the word, click the hyperlink symbol, and paste the link.

8:18 PM  
Blogger Sarah E. Smith said...

We might be agreeing, China, but talking in different terms -

You say that "the artist cannot be entirely abstract," but I am not asking her to be. Art certainly imitates some parts of life, especially if you equate "imitate" and "reproduce" (which is what I *think* you are doing, though correct me if I am wrong). And of course we need previous structures, even as simple as line, word, or sound, to create art. But all art does not imitate these structures. It actively *engages* them. If it merely imitated them, all we would have was a hodge-podge of lines and words and sounds. There would be no conscious thought, no input if art were truly imitative. It imitates, but is not imitative. So I think that we are agreeing, but that we perhaps have different definitions of imitate.

My main quarrel is with the word "imitative." It is reductive and negative, implying that art can only reproduce (poorly) the structures and forms of life. I do not deny that art imitates certain forms (like line, word, sound etc.), but it works off of those. It is active, not passive, progressive, not regressive.

I would argue that what you are discussing with the case of the dress is not imitation. That is active engagement, to me, which is very different from imitative. Perhaps imitation of a form is a starting point, for, you are right, the fabric dress had to exist for the art to ensue. But that does not mean that the sculptor's work merely hollowly reproduces that dress. It works off of it. Were it to imitate the dress, it would sculpt an inevitably poorer representation of the dress with no creative thought. Like a photograph of art - art prints are, to me, imitative. They add nothing new. But because the sculptor adds something new, his work is not imitative. Rather, it re-visions the form of the dress. It may imitate it on some level, but it moves beyond that.

Does that make sense? I think that we are agreeing, but that I have a different (and much more negative) definition of "imitative." Let me know, and I am enjoying your responses!

2:02 AM  
Blogger China said...

Hey Sarah, in response to this:

"But that does not mean that the sculptor's work merely hollowly reproduces that dress. It works off of it. Were it to imitate the dress, it would sculpt an inevitably poorer representation of the dress with no creative thought."

I think my point might not have been entirely clear; art does work off of what it has to work from. But what I'm trying to argue is not just that the artist imitates the object itself, but that the only reason he/she can interpret the original object uniquely is because potential for that interpretation already had to exist with the original object. I don't believe the artist to be entirely original, I just think the artist notices an aspect of the object that the craftsman had already left for the taking, whether the craftsman chose to highlight it or not in the beginning. Maybe a better example would be the student who writes an essay about a novel he reads in school. For the purpose of explanation, we'll call the novelist a craftsman and the student an artist. The novel the student has to work from delivers a message, but what readers can choose to take from that novel is left in the open. The student may choose to write an essay interpreting the novel in whatever way he deems accurate, and while he may be the first person in the world (!) to come up with his interpretation, he's still likely not coming up with anything entirely original because the novelist would have left the possibility of that interpretation to the reader. I think this applies to any form of art. The artist may be the first to voice an expression through his work, but potential for that particular view already existed once the object he imitated was created.

I don't think imitation is necessarily negative, either. I view it as a form of admiration, and if 100 people were to imitate the same tree, for instance, through their own paintings or drawings, they'd all come up with something different not because they're creating new viewpoints, but because they each view that tree from a different light, which there was potential for once the tree was planted.

This is such a bizarre concept to explain. Does that sound a bit clearer, though?

11:51 AM  

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