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The Aesthetics of Mimesis

The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems

Stephen Halliwell
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 440
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  • Book Info
    The Aesthetics of Mimesis
    Book Description:

    Mimesis is one of the oldest, most fundamental concepts in Western aesthetics. This book offers a new, searching treatment of its long history at the center of theories of representational art: above all, in the highly influential writings of Plato and Aristotle, but also in later Greco-Roman philosophy and criticism, and subsequently in many areas of aesthetic controversy from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. Combining classical scholarship, philosophical analysis, and the history of ideas--and ranging across discussion of poetry, painting, and music--Stephen Halliwell shows with a wealth of detail how mimesis, at all stages of its evolution, has been a more complex, variable concept than its conventional translation of "imitation" can now convey.

    Far from providing a static model of artistic representation, mimesis has generated many different models of art, encompassing a spectrum of positions from realism to idealism. Under the influence of Platonist and Aristotelian paradigms, mimesis has been a crux of debate between proponents of what Halliwell calls "world-reflecting" and "world-simulating" theories of representation in both the visual and musico-poetic arts. This debate is about not only the fraught relationship between art and reality but also the psychology and ethics of how we experience and are affected by mimetic art.

    Moving expertly between ancient and modern traditions, Halliwell contends that the history of mimesis hinges on problems that continue to be of urgent concern for contemporary aesthetics.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2530-1
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction: Mimesis and the History of Aesthetics
    (pp. 1-34)

    In October 1798, Goethe, with the cooperation of a few friends, founded a new journal of art criticism and bestowed on it the title ofDie Propyläen. The choice of the Greek term “Propylaia” (or Propylaea), whose original meaning designated an architectural portal or gateway—most famously the entrance to the Athenian Acropolis—lent the project a culturally rich yet ambiguous resonance. While evidently signaling an approach to a classical past, the journal’s title subtly evoked a view from outside and even from “below” (the view of the Acropolis on its western side was already becoming a familiar subject in...

  2. PART I

    • Chapter One Representation and Reality: Plato and Mimesis
      (pp. 37-71)

      Plato and mimesis form a fateful conjunction in the history of aesthetics. Not only was Plato the first Greek thinker to explore the idea of mimetic art in a theoretically extensive and probing manner, engaging strategically with themes and issues that, as we saw in my introduction, had been voiced in various but unsystematic ways in earlier Greek poetry and thought. He also took two momentous steps toward turning mimesis into the backdrop for an entire philosophy of art. The first was to pose certain fundamental challenges to the status and value of artistic mimesis—challenges that have remained unsettling...

    • Chapter Two Romantic Puritanism: Plato and the Psychology of Mimesis
      (pp. 72-97)

      According to Friedrich Nietzsche in theGenealogy of Morals, Plato stands as “the greatest enemy of art Europe has yet produced.”¹ In framing this description Nietzsche was, in his own peculiarly incisive way, paying a formidable compliment to a writer he placed in the select company of those whose thought constitutes “a passionate history of their soul” (eine leidenschaftliche Seelen-Geschichte) and embodies the product of a life that “burns with the passion of thinking” (in der Leidenschaft des Denkens verbrennt).² The “greatness” of Plato’s perceived enmity to art was, for Nietzsche, no crude extreme of antipathy but a measure of...

    • Chapter Three Mimesis and the Best Life: Plato’s Repudiation of the Tragic
      (pp. 98-117)

      In uncovering the psychological infrastructure of Plato’s engagement with mimesis I suggest in chapter 2 that his unease over the transformative power of mimetic art—its capacity to shape the minds of its audiences by absorbing them imaginatively in the possibility of “other lives”—culminates in an acute anxiety over one particular kind of art, tragedy. It is above all to tragic poetry, a category that Plato, on grounds that will soon emerge, does not limit to Attic drama but treats as embracing the work of Homer (“first of the tragedians”) too,¹ that “the greatest charge” ofRepublic10.605c6 relates: the...

    • Chapter Four More Than Meets the Eye: Looking into Plato’s Mirror
      (pp. 118-148)

      If poetry is the art form that occupies most space in ancient discussions of mimesis, it is equally true that the figurative arts, above all painting, constitute an almost ever present paradigm and point of reference for interpretation of the concept. This state of affairs goes back beyond Aristotle’sPoetics, in which painting is cited as a parallel to poetry on a total of eight occasions, and even beyond Plato’s own frequent comparisons of the two arts, not least in the momentous conjunction of painting and poetry inRepublicbook 10.² The aesthetic association of poetry and painting is at...

  3. PART II

    • Chapter Five Inside and Outside the Work of Art: Aristotelian Mimesis Reevaluated
      (pp. 151-176)

      The understanding of Aristotelian mimesis has suffered almost as much at the hands of its ostensible friends as at those of its avowed opponents. While the philosopher’s concept of mimesis has played a vital role in the long story of Western attitudes to artistic representation, that role has often been mediated through the reworking and misinterpretation of his ideas, especially those found in thePoetics. The critical balance of the treatise has been prejudicially weighted down, at different times, either on the side of a doctrinal didacticism or, equally distortingly, on that of a formalist creed of pure artistic autonomy....

    • Chapter Six The Rewards of Mimesis: Pleasure, Understanding, and Emotion in Aristotle’s Aesthetics
      (pp. 177-206)

      It emerged in the preceding chapter that for Aristotle, just as much as for Plato, a mature philosophical theory of artistic mimesis involves integral consideration of the kinds of experience that mimetic artworks offer to and invite from their audiences. The purpose of the present chapter is to explore further this psychological dimension of Aristotle’s mimeticism, and more particularly to argue that his concept of mimesis, in thePoeticsand elsewhere, entails the interlocking functioning of three elements—pleasure, understanding, and emotion—that have too often been separately discussed by students of this area of his thinking. The product of...

    • Chapter Seven Tragic Pity: Aristotle and Beyond
      (pp. 207-233)

      For Aristotle as for Plato, the deepest, most significant and most philosophically interesting of all mimetic artforms was tragic poetry.² That tragedy should attract such attention from both philosophers was a reflection not only of the genre’s cultural prestige in classical Athens, but also, and more fundamentally, of the scope of its ethical and psychological engagement with extremes of human experience and suffering. Plato, as I argued in chapter 3, counted tragedy as a kind of embryonic (though profoundly mistaken) philosophy: the vehicle of a set of attitudes and values capable of being translated into a worldview that, if taken...

    • Chapter Eight Music and the Limits of Mimesis: Aristotle Versus Philodemus
      (pp. 234-260)

      The nature of music is perhaps the most intractable, as well as one of the most fascinating, of all problems in aesthetics. It has been debated voluminously and often polemically since antiquity, and far from becoming worn out the subject has in recent years seen a spate of publications from contemporary philosophers, especially in the English-speaking world.¹ However intellectualized the questions that cluster around the topic may have become, their roots are unmistakably “anthropological.” Every known human culture not only possesses music but develops ways of using it that consistently manifest both an association with special categories of events and...


    • Chapter Nine Truth or Delusion? The Mimeticist Legacy in Hellenistic Philosophy
      (pp. 263-286)

      In the domain of aesthetics, moving on from the writings of Plato and Aristotle to the rather patchily preserved evidence for Hellenistic attitudes to mimetic art is somewhat like descending from a mountain range into a large but indefinitely sprawling plain. It is appropriate to begin this journey, however, by observing that extensive areas of the plain are irrigated by waters that run down from the peaks above. One aspect of the impact of both Plato and Aristotle—an aspect given little attention by historians of philosophy but an immensely important one in the long run of the history of...

    • Chapter Ten Images of Life: Mimesis and Literary Criticism after Aristotle
      (pp. 287-312)

      Aristophanes of Byzantium, one of the leading literary scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria and the head of its library in the first part of the second century B.C., famously posed a rhetorical question about the comedies of Menander: “O Menander and Life, which of you took the other as your model?”² The standard rendering of the wordspoteros . . . poteron apemimēsatoas “which of you imitated the other?”, though hallowed by convention, is likely to blunt our appreciation of several facets of this quizzical bon mot. Aristophanes takes for granted an established and broadly Aristotelian concept of (dramatic) poetry...

    • Chapter Eleven Renewal and Transformation: Neoplatonism and Mimesis
      (pp. 313-343)

      The concerns explored in Plato’s repeated dealings with mimesis set a large part of the agenda for the history of ancient aesthetics. Together with the countervailing views of Aristotle, which they themselves had helped to prompt, they became, in ways my two preceding chapters have allowed us to glimpse, a source of both stimulus and provocation that ran through the core of the mimeticist tradition. But not until late antiquity did anybody take up the topic of mimesis on the full scale of the Platonic precedent, restoring it to a position with relevance for the entire gamut of philosophical issues...

    • Chapter Twelve An Inheritance Contested: Renaissance to Modernity
      (pp. 344-382)

      Despite, or perhaps in part because of, its importance and influence within the history of aesthetics, the current status of mimesis as a concept (or family of concepts) in the theory of art is contentious and unstable. In an age when talk of representation has become increasingly subject to both ideological and epistemological suspicion, mimesis is, for many philosophers and critics, little more than a broken column surviving from a long-dilapidated classical edifice, a sadly obsolete relic of former certainties. According to such convictions, even the Renaissance and neoclassical revival of mimeticism was a phase of thought whose structure of...