Translation Annie Wright
H. van Boxtel,
The Parrot Museum philosopher
Nature as an Object of Mimesis
Imitation is ingrained in humankind
A child copies his parents, with his tongue and lips, with his behaviour, with his ideas later, and so - faltering and fumbling - he makes his way towards maturity. He becomes an adult through aping and mimicking examples.
The urge to imitate does not disappear when growth is completed and the most important issue is to beget the next generation.
Imitation is at the essence of humankind. We live in rows, we reside in queues, and we feel good.
Humankind exists within a system of imitation, where originality is abandoned without a fight. A vectoral system with - as the ultimate upshot - a person who follows his Gods.
As a whole, humankind wants to be the equal of the Gods. Not in terms of decency or goodness, no, we accept that, but in terms of respect and, more especially, power. We want the power of the Gods, and we live our lives being too big for our boots. We know so much; we can do so many things.
Imitation is ingrained in humankind. Not only the word's meaning as it is used here - where the concept of imitation is limited to abandoning individuality so that the Other can be followed - but also its enriched meaning of following the example and correcting it when it fails, are as ancient as the heyday of Greek philosophy and as old as Aristotle himself. Therefore, it would be better to use the Greek mimesis to denote the enriched meaning of the word imitation.
People imitate people in everything. Human culture is one of duplication, repetition and adaptation; however, people also live in a mimetic relationship with nature. We look at nature; we study it, follow it and improve it in our own way.
We have improved flying - which is the domain of birds - so that we do not become tired when we do it. By contrast, birds must rest occasionally on a twig.
We can breed sweet-natured dogs, make mice with human ears on their backs, create gene corrections and lovelier faces, solve diseases, eat extremely healthy food in the West, and: Caesar, stop nosing around…! snapped the spry old lady at her dog who, in the 20 years spent on a leash, has become erudite in the ways of 'doggydom', and is almost perfect.
As pollution, noise and aggression threaten the world with disaster, we still believe that we can do something about it.
The ultimate goal of everything is to make nature redundant and to replace it with major human issues.
Art does not experience this desire to dominate in its relation to nature. Rather, at particular times and as based on a particular view, it simply wants to depict and display this view.
Nature as the object of mimesis
Throughout human history, nature has served as a model for its art: hand prints, mammoths and prehistoric bulls in caves, fertility statues and the art of Ancient Egypt.
The sculptures of the Ancient Greeks involve life-like bodies. Nonetheless, the bodies are not exact copies of life. They are not about imitation - in the sense of mimicking - but about mimesis. It is inconceivable that, during its sculpture's heyday, such perfect bodies would have populated Ancient Greece. On average, the people would have been less corpulent than us, but for the rest they would have been just as ugly. So the masters made many improvements to those miracles of sculpture… Hence, these works can hardly be considered realistic. The object of these sculptures, the human body, is perfected completely in accordance with nature, and it is in that sense idealised. Therefore, an idea of a person was visualised rather than a specific individual or possible individual.
Little is known about the painting of the Ancient Greeks apart from a few tall stories - such as a bird trying to fly indoors through a painted window - but it would have certainly been something similar.
In addition, Greek culture generated a number of philosophical theories of art concerning the concept of mimesis, which have had at least as much influence on the course of history as Greek art. Naturally, Plato and Aristotle should be mentioned here.
Art assumed a different position during the Middle Ages. What we now recognise in medieval art as being fine art, painting or sculpture, qualified as applied art, as design, so far as its maker was concerned. The work served a greater whole, to which it belonged. Art had its specific task within the religious sphere that pervaded even its furthest reaches.
Perspective is seemingly one of the most important tools for relating the imitative or mimetic to reality. However, the notion that it was discovered in the early Renaissance is an unfortunate one: Medieval culture had a different perspective (the divine or immanent) where the terrestrial was subordinated to the celestial view.
If there is any question here of imitation or mimesis, it is in the Platonic sense, and not the Aristotelian.
Early signs of Western culture's renewed interest in concrete nature can be found in the work of the 13th century scholar Albertus Magnus, who mentions in one of his tracts a sparrow hopping around while he was working, and which was clearly a real rather than a symbolic sparrow. This tiny creature was enjoyed and described in all its individuality.
The work of the Flemish Primitives, which flourished in the Southern Low Lands during the late Middle Ages, depicts a different form of mimesis.
Jan van Eyck, possibly the sharpest naked eye ever, demonstrated in his works a deep awareness of nature and concrete reality.
When we view the Van Der Paele Madonna, we see the patron Van Der Paele kneeling next to the Madonna, who is seated on a throne with the Christ Child on her lap; Christ is holding a parrot. In all probability, the patron's head in the painting closely resembles that of the real-life Van Der Paele. There has been little idealisation here and, in terms of form, it displays an obvious affinity with a well-constructed potato. He has large, rough hands, dirty fingernails and his eyes are clearly none too good, as is demonstrated by the glasses that he is holding in his hands. Experts have even been able to determine the exact deviation of both eyes.
Evidently there is a form of imitation here. However, it also seems that everything that Van Eyck painted is part of a symbolic order that represents divine omnipotence and goodness. For instance, the dirty nails refer to the fact that Van Der Paele is not afraid to roll up his sleeves, and that he does not spend the entire day with his nose in a book: he is a worker in God's creation.
This tendency, the inclusion of profane elements, can be observed to a greater or lesser extent in the work of every Flemish Primitive, and ultimately consists of attention for not only the terrestrial and sensory perspective but also the things that appear in it.
However, nothing is the way that it seems. It is more, and also somewhat different. In its triviality, it also fulfils a role in the story that is viewed as being of a higher order.
This triviality, which of course includes nature, is used here as a symbolic system ultimately intended to praise the Creator, and to show us the way to Bliss. An invisible reality dominates these works that states that there is but one artist: the Creator himself.
Mathematical perspective was developed in Italy at approximately the same time as the era of the Flemish Primitives. It is a technical device to represent the world in a more true-to-life way and, therefore, to express imitation and mimesis differently in painting and other forms.
Increasingly, the symbolic devices needed to express the higher, divine order in visual terms, were obstructing the desire to depict the world as it appears to our external senses.
It was for this reason that Leonardo encountered difficulties with a client at the end of the 15th century when he refused to add halos to the Madonna, Christ and St. John the Baptist in his Madonna of the Rocks. He was summoned to appear in court and compelled to include the halos along with a staff for the toddler St. John. Naturally, he did not do this. Instead he copied the work, which was adapted in accordance with the patron's wishes and is now a part of the permanent collection of the Louvre. Along with being purged of the visible reality of symbolic objects, Leonardo's works contain much more that can be observed and read in terms of mimesis.
Leonardo worked from a two-point perspective because we have two eyes, which are separated by a small gap. Therefore, we perceive reality in a vaguely unfocused way and, because our eyes do not observe from a single viewpoint, we also see a part of the back of the object. This in turn forms the basis of Leonardo's sfumato: the velvety contour, the slightly unfocused effect, which is a further perfecting - albeit unique - of mimesis.
Willem Kalf, the 17th century genre painter from the Dutch Republic, was a painter of ornate still lifes: never before or since has light been so beautifully rendered. The glasses of wine, the goblets and the food, the grapes and the plums are depicted with wondrous perfection in the lustre of their colours, surface, skin, specific radiance and seeming tastiness. Never before had things looked so real. And, in accordance with the nature of a meal, this tableau would have be short lived, which therefore made it an excellent vehicle for expressing the transience of existence. This transience, mortality and vanitas are above all expressed in the treatment of the light. Nothing is so transient as the appearance of things in constantly shifting light. Like photography, only a single moment can be shown: a 1/250th of a second, a blink of an eye. Human life is so brief, and Kalf's light can be regarded as the ultimate vanitas and as infinitely more all embracing than any skull.
Let's leave history for what is, for there is no old art, only good art and bad art, and bad art isn't art anyway. The computer - along with its programs and tools - is an additional step in the development of images. The extraordinary thing about it is that, in contrast to a brush, silver stylus or pencil, it contains an accumulative aspect. The potential of the computer and its accompanying media is being constantly developed. Existing possibilities are improved, refined and extended. A brush or a pen contains none of the potential of previous users and is, as such, 'without memory': a tabula rasa. Your own two hands have to develop everything, absolutely everything.
The computer and its applications contain a great many pre-programmed possibilities, which provide options albeit in a standardised form. Artists using computers must therefore fight for their individuality, should they attach any importance to it, so as to be able to deploy the computer's potential.
In short, there is still far more that can be subjected to mimesis, and this occur in any form of art and in any way. Yet the central concern remains the same: the quality of the image rather than the modernity of the tools.
Ultimately it is the quality of the image, the poetry of the image, rather than conforming to what the eye sees in reality. Because that's what we already see. What is essential are the additions, adaptations, corrections, deviations, translations, resumptions, mistakes, sloppiness, distortions, stupidities, naiveties, misrepresentations, cruelties, craziness, failures, prejudice, jealousy, shabbiness, idiosyncrasies, cosiness, self-humiliation, modesty, drunkenness, idiocy, astonishment, immodesty, loutishness, intolerance, loneliness, repetition, indifference, folly, vagueness, lack of clarity, redundancies, impertinence, scholarliness, childishness, insight, exaggeration, bad taste, contradiction, anger, obsession, sentimentality, gaudiness, vanity, clever-cleverness, desperation, impotence, helplessness, limitation, despair, joy, tragedy and all the rest that is - my God!- essential for humankind.
Whether it is made with a brush or with a computer, the quality of the artist's vision and knowledge will remain the image's point of departure.
The computer will continue to develop, and an increasing number of its existing products will seem primitive once new models, programs and other possibilities are introduced.
It will never be finished, this machine, this artificial memory. This perfect machine, perchance... But keep this in mind: a person is just a person, and nature is what it is.