art as representationOverview

Art generally represents some aspect or aspects of the world, but what aspects, and to what extent? Modernism promoted originality, and Postmodernism renounces mimesis altogether. Read this section to appreciate the part played by medium or genre, the issues originally outlined by the Greeks, and the difference between illustrating concepts and embodying them.


Whatever else it may do, art must represent something of the outside world. That something cannot be the whole world, of course, but we often feel that the part represented should be made intelligible, memorable, and important to us. Even the abstract arts, music and modern painting, involve the emotions, and must in some way re-present them. And if representation then fidelity, truth of some sort. "Life isn't like that" is a serious criticism to make of a play or novel. {1}

Plato and Reality

But how much of life should art represent? That which educates us in moral truths, said Plato. Children (i.e. boys) were to learn the great poets and dramatists by heart, appropriately, with gesture and feeling through imaginative identification with their parts. Thereby they would gain a true perspective on the world — true being for Plato, as no less for Aristotle, not matters of opinion. Behind the shifting appearances of things, argued Plato, lay the eternal Forms, of which everything we apprehend with our senses are imperfect copies. Only intellect and scrupulous morality will guide us to the truth, and Plato elaborates in "The Republic" the ways these should be strengthened by State and individual. {2}

Plato's ideal state seems joyless to us, but comparisons with totalitarian regimes are overdone. No dictator would have survived the rigorous education and training Plato envisaged for his Guardians, and of lawless freedom Plato had already experienced too much at first hand. But his view of art is certainly restrictive. Evil may be depicted in drama only to condemn it, and then not too often. Painting and sculpture require knowledge, but this is mere knowledge of appearances, allowing the visual arts to only copy what were already poor copies of the true Forms. And music has to be socially responsible. Indeed all the arts must serve a larger end, which is to teach us to love "beauty", a term that for the Greeks included the fine and the honourable.

Does that mean total state control? Not in a contemporary sense. The state is its people, or at least its Guardians, who have been rigorously educated and trained in selfless administration. Authority is not blind, but rather the ceaseless application of educated thought and moral judgement. Nor is it a self-perpetuating, since Guardians are chosen on merit and continuously assessed. But the Guardians do have the final say. Poets are a powerful force for moral education, and should be prevented from prostituting their gifts in cheap satire or sensationalism. They may be divinely inspired — and Plato writes from the inside, from personal knowledge — but their pronouncements do not in themselves guarantee truth. Art is not a self-sufficient pursuit, nor even a faithful representation of the world, but only a reflection of moral beauty.

Aristotle and Mimesis

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was more systematic and down to earth. All the arts have their own techniques and rational principles, and it is through mastery of these that the artist/craftsman brings his conceptions to life. Yes, the arts do copy nature, but their representations are fuller and more meaningful than nature gives us in the raw. That is their strength. We do not therefore need to insist on some moral purpose for art, which is thus free to represent all manner of things present, past, imagined or institutionally-required. Correctness in poetry is not correctness judged on other grounds like politics or morality. The artist's task is to create some possible world which the audience will grasp and evaluate much as they do the "real" world outside. The artwork needs to be internally consistent, and externally acceptable. {3}

Form and content cannot be entirely separated. Plays should have a beginning, middle and end because life itself has these features, but they should also possess a larger significance that endows the individual representation with deeper human meaning. Where Plato castigated poetry for bewitching the senses, Aristotle praises it for catharsis and healthy psychological balance. Both in its creation and reception, art is mode of understanding, and so a civilizing influence.

Genre and Expectations

How is the world presented to us in art but through the medium concerned? Oils, watercolor, gouache, etc. — every artist knows how the choice controls what he can make successful, both in subject matter and how he chooses to represent its features. Equally in literature the genre, that amalgam of style and subject matter, lays down certain rules of treatment. {4} The serious literary novel is not a bonkbuster, for example, and readers become confused and angry if the conventions are flouted. We should not want to say that all literary productions are written to formulae, but professional writers recognize that the great bulk of stories are elaborations on a small number of themes. {5} To the extent that literature — in all categories, from tabloid comment to arcane poetry — helps us to see and make sense of the world, that understanding is coloured and to some extent organized by the expectations and prejudices of the great mass of the reading public.

What then is "real life"? Perhaps what we describe informally to ourselves and friends. But that description is not without its expectations and correct forms. The yarn we spin in the pub is very different from our statement in the witness box. And when speech carries an additional burden — developing character and plot in a novel, for example — very formidable skills are required. Authors and actors in their quest for the seemingly natural, fresh and inevitable have indeed long understood what stylistics and sociology are now uncovering. {6} The most artless expressions make use of a complex web of verbal skills and social expectations. Neither in art nor in real life is there a simple "naturalness", but only a familiarity born of practice.

The Individual Contribution

Does this make the artist simply a repacker of old goods in the bright wrappings of current fads? Commercial writing does need to be very aware of shifts in public concern, and every course in journalism will list the angles that need constantly to be borne in mind. But writing is not entirely made to order, and certainly not by fleshing out the usual checklists. Slant becomes important later, as a tool for analysis, when the writing will not gel, or requires reshaping for a different market. Moreover, for writing to be convincing there needs generally to be a personal element, something the writer believes in and makes his own. Intellectual slumming in writing for the trade paper or women's magazine is immediately detected, by the readership if the editor has not spiked the piece first. {7} Even Wittgenstein, not usually seen as a popular writer, felt that one must "philosophize with one's whole body", and he criticized the painless juggling with words in arguments created independently of their author. {8}

That there are no surefire recipes for success is obvious to anyone who has worked in the arts, from scriptwriter to media tycoon. Books, films, sitcoms are constantly being analyzed for market appeal, but the smash hit takes everyone by surprise. The work was expected to do well, but not that well. One small feature happened to hook into the public interest, and the thing snowballed. Or the work dropped into a vacant niche, unrecognized at the time. Or it was the artist, working beneath current conventions, who found his own concerns, honestly portrayed, were also those of the wider community. The error of the theory of artistic and literary kinds, said Benedetto Croce, begins when we try to deduce the expression from the concept. Every original work of art has upset the ideas of some critics, who have been obliged to widen their use of the term. {9}

Against the Tide: Modernism

Not all writers have consulted the market. Some indeed have done the very opposite, producing work so different that all established conventions of style and subject matter seemed thrown to the winds. The avant garde prized originality above all things, and zealously guarded their work from acceptance by the profane majority. {10} Modernism was highbrow, and though it presupposed familiarity with the great works of the past, it consciously set out to overturn traditional values. Art was not to serve society, but the self-admiration of small but prestigious cliques. Modernist literature fractured syntax, and replaced plot and character by myth and psychoanalysis. As a logical extension of "art for art's sake" Modernism clearly drew on itself, seeking an existence outside time and context, with no clear boundary between the public and private worlds. Genre boundaries were shifted, and autonomy secured by fragmentation and montage.{11}

How did it become so successful? By the ruthless self-promotion of its practitioners. Much of the financial support came from wealthy patrons, particularly women, and afterwards from small magazines who had a name to make. But the establishment was hostile for decades, until iconoclasm combined with the interests of the young escaping from the restrictions and hypocrisies of their elders. {12} Thereafter, in the thirties and forties, proselytizing was carried out by the educational establishments, notably Oxbridge and Ivy League universities, where it still holds sway.

The Hermetic View: Postmodernism

Being avant garde, Modernism had always to move on. Already absolved from any responsibility to tell the truth, or even to represent the outside world, art looked into the tortuous paths of its own thought processes, coming finally to question its own status. {13} Art was not representation, but a reflecting mirror of codes that had to be deciphered. And not only had each art-form its characteristic codes, but each artist played them slightly differently: Cezanne's language was not Matisse's. {14} But the Poststructuralists went much further. Words refer only to themselves, said Derrida, and there is no final interpretation, only an endless chain of deferring. The artist does not exist declared Barthes, and the meaning of texts are simply what their readers choose to read into them. {15}

What's to be made of this? Firstly there are the counter-arguments of the embattled literary establishment, who attacked the self-admiring rhetoric of these audacious theorists, showing that many did not understand the authorities quoted. {16} Then there is the work of the Anglo-American schools of philosophy — Quine, Searle, Davidson, — who acknowledge the difficulties in pinning down truth and meaning, but don't find that an argument for junking all reasoning. {17} And then there are the Marxist writers who see a sick society reflected in a sick literature: in fragmentation, alienation, disenchantment. With common purpose removed, man has struggled to find reasons for existence. The meaning of life has seeped from politics and public life, taking a niggardly refuge in the private world of abstruse thought and material consumption. {18}

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. Chapter 6 of Oswald Hanfling's Philosphical Aesthetics: An Introduction (1992).
2. pp. 239-250 in Hanfling 1992 and Steven Halliwell's Plato in David Cooper's A Companion to Aesthetics (1995). Also CJ Rowe's Plato: Philosophers in Context (1984).
3. pp. 250-262 in Hanfling 1992, and Steven Halliwell's Aristotle in Cooper 1995.
4. Andrew Harrison's Genre in Cooper 1995.
5. Margret Geraghty's The Novelist's Guide (1995).
6. Mick Short's (Ed.) Reading, analyzing and Teaching Literature (1988) and Paul Connerton's How Societies Remember (1989).
7. Chapters 2 and 3 of Barry Turner's The Writer's Companion (1996).
8. Chapter 7 of E. Heller's The Artist's Journey into the Interior (1965).
9. Chapter 4 of Benedetto Croce's Aesthetics (1907).
10. R. Poggioli's The Theory of the Avant-Garde (1968).
11. A vast literature. See: Rainer Emig's Modernism in Poetry: Motivation, Structures and Limits (1995) and Dowe Fokkema and Elrud Ibsch's Modernist Conjectures: A Mainstream in European Literature 1910-1940. (1987).
12. Symons, J. Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature 1912-39 (1987).
13. Ihab Hassan's The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (1987), which has an extensive bibliography.
14. Nelson Goodman's Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (1976).
15. Chapter 10 of Hanfling 1992. Also Christopher Norris's Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. (1982), J. Sturrock's Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Straus to Derrida. (1984), Chapter 8 of Bernard Bergonzi's Exploding English (1990), Raman Seldon's A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (1985), and the works listed on p.65 of Wendell Harris's Literary Meaning (1996).
16. Roger Scruton's The Politics of Culture and other Essays (1981), Chapter 11 of George Watson's The Literary Critics (1986), and J.G. Merquior's From Prague to Paris (1986).
17. Chapters 5 and 6 of Roger Scruton's Modern Philosophy (1996), Chapters 4 and 7 of Anders Wedberg's A History of Philosophy: Volume 3: From Bolzano to Wittgenstein (1984), Chapter 2 of Sybil Wolfram's Philosophical Logic: An Introduction (1989) and Simon Blackburn's Spreading the Word: Groundings in Philosophy of Language (1984).
18. Alex Callinos's Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (1989).  

Internet Resources

1. Art and Epistemology. Sarah E. Worth. 2003. Non-propositional knowledge in art.
2. Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry. Charles Griswold. Dec. 2003. Detailed account.
3. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) Poetics. Joe Sachs. 2001. Good account of poetry as imitation.
4. George Santayana. Herman Saatkamp. Feb. 2002. Knowledge as immersion in life, not from reasoning.
5. Hans-Georg Gadamer. Jeff Malpas. Mar. 2003. Art as a totality of experience.
6. Pork Chops and Pineapples. Terry Eagleton. Oct. 2003. Review of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature by Erich Auerbach .
7. Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant Garde. Michelle Marder Kamhi. Jan. 2003. Importance of mimesis to true art.
8. Mimesis and the Aesthetic Experience. R.Cronk. 1996. One of several essays of interest on this site.
9. Guide to Literary Theory.Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. Johns Hopkins online guide: free access limited.
10. Postmodernism. Lengthy entry with in-text links.
11. Postmodernism. Mary Klages. Apr. 2003. Characteristics and key figures.
12. Nelson Goodman.
. Short list of links.
13. 'Languagues of Art. An Approach to a Theory of Symbols' by Nelson Goodman. Sep. 2000. Critical review by Stefan Beyst of Goodman's 1976 book.