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Imitation is a foundational concept in the creation and study of literature. The fundamental assumptions embedded in imitation create a distinct and divisive method of perception. Imitation requires a basic belief in separation: appearance apart from reality, form apart from content. Literary works possess a dual existence, where the surface becomes most useful in its ability to reveal the substance contained within. Because the truth remains concealed, it can only be discerned or discovered through imitation. Thus imitation exists as an intermediary in a variety of artistic representations, each aspiring for an accurate depiction of meaning, perhaps even the basic truths of human existence. For Plato, however, art imitates a world that is already far removed from authentic reality, Truth, an inherently flawed copy of an already imperfect world. Art as an imitation is irrelevant to what is real. Many critics since Plato have attempted to reestablish the essential value of art by redefining or renegotiating the boundaries between imitation and authentic reality, between the text itself and meaning.
From ancient to more modern critics, art is defined, vilified, or redeemed by its ability to imitate. Aristotle values imitation as a natural process of humanity. Tragedy is simply a manifestation of the human desire to imitate. He asserts that every person "learns his lesson through imitation and we observe that all men find pleasure in imitations" (44). Unlike Plato's world of Forms, knowledge of truth and goodness are rooted in the observable universe to Aristotle. Because imitation strives to create accurate particularized images of the real world, it is a source for potential discovery and delight. Neoclassical criticism accepts as givens Aristotle's statements about the nature of art and reality. Art is valuable precisely because it is imitative. As Sir Philip Sydney states, "Poesy is an art of imitation...with this end, to teach and delight" (137). Imitation not only entertains, but gains a moral/ethical purpose: to teach virtue. Artists must, in addition to possessing great creative skills, also bear moral responsibility for shaping their imitations. Samuel Johnson seems to revisit Plato's attack upon art with his admission that an accurate imitation of morally questionable subject matter is not only unacceptable, but potentially harmful to those who encounter it. In order to accommodate a strong moral sense, Johnson describes imitation as a process of interpretation. "The business of a poet... is to examine, not the individual, but the species.
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Though definitions of imitation may have expanded in some eras or contracted in others, I would submit that most (if not all) Western literary criticism can be seen as an espousal of or reaction against the imitative function of art. Imitation, whether a work of art points toward an abstract truth or the subjective consciousness of an individual mind, presents a powerful theory of human communication. With its beginnings in Kant, Formalist criticism has surfaced as a response to mimetic assumptions about art and reality, insisting that the form of a text is inseparable from its meaning. Formalism does provide a counterpoint to representational art, but the boundaries of this debate have been determined in advance by the very notion of imitation. It may be, as Susan Sontag states, that "all Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the... theory of art as mimesis or representation" (545). The questions raised by imitation may well be integral and unavoidable in any literary or critical enterprise.
Johnson, Samuel. "Rasselas, Chapter 10" The Critical Tradition. Ed., David H. Richter, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Sidney, Philip. "An Apology for Poetry" The Critical Tradition. Ed., David H. Richter, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Sontag, Susan. "Against Interpretation" The Critical Tradition. Ed., David H. Richter, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Wordsworth, William. "Preface to Lyric Ballads" The Critical Tradition. Ed., David H. Richter, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.