From Imitation Theory to Representation Theory

Thomas Love Working (2016), Retrieved from

The history of discussion on art might be longer than people thought. Plato, a well-known philosopher, as well as an artist in ancient Greek, recorded his teacher Socrates’ dialogues with other people in the book, the Republic. On the one hand, the Republic is a note of Socrates’ thoughts; on the other hand, it was in this book that Plato come up with mimesis, as well as imitation theory. In Chapter 2 of the Republic, Socrates came up with some questions: is God perfect? Will a man or God desire to be worse? What should be the ideal education for the young? As for the first one, Socrates took Zeus and Homer’s work, Odyssey, for example. Either Zeus or Odyssey is not perfect, which contradicted with the prototype of God. To illustrate, Zeus would get indulged in lust while the heroes in Odyssey may express grief or use tricks to achieve a goal. According to Plato, these poetries include flawed characters of Gods, the problem of judgment, and conflict divine goodness. Therefore, these poetries would corrupt you people and should be ascribed to “false poetry.” To summarize, poetries that discourage courage or cause excessive laughter are false poetries. Further, the goal of prohibiting them is cultivating both physically strong and mentally courageous young people and achieve “philosopher-king” ultimately. According to the description in the Republic, there are three levels of existence: forms of objects, particular examples, and mirror-images (Silverman, A., 2014). A mirror-image does not need to be a specific item, while its creator had some intentions or motivations to invent it. Comparing the three levels, Plato concluded that only works that imitating the real world can be artworks. This theory is the essence of imitation theory and had influenced the following philosophers and artists greatly.

Plato’s student, Aristotle, revised Plato’s thought. Also, the idea of mimesis was improved by Aristotle. According to Aristotle, the goal of mimesis is not cheating people that the imitated work is the original item. For example, the purpose of drawing a portrait is not cheating people that the picture is that person. Neither is it aimed to re-create something/somebody that had already existed. On the contrary, the artists intended to beautify, improve, and universalize something that nature and human beings have in common. In this way, people would extract the features of individual items and know the world better. Admittedly, Aristotle inherited his teacher, Plato’s idea, to some extent. In order to mark this intersection, the following philosophers come up with “Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy” (White, N.,1989). For example, they reached the consensus that an artwork is an imitation of something, and audiences can learn from reproductions. Also, they agreed that mimesis is the perfect imitation of the real world. Plus, Platonic-Aristotelian believed that visual and acoustic spectacles accompany music and dance, so they are subservient to the purpose of representation. However, Aristotle did not discriminate against literature as intensively as Plato (Auerbach, E., 1953). Plato, as mentioned before, advocated prohibiting all poetries by the hymns of God and praise of good man. The former, however, maintained that human beings are mimetic creatures; the dramatists can provoke strong emotions of audiences and invoke their empathizes. With these emotions, human beings may get closer to “real.” That means poets like Homer would be raised to a higher level. Further, the scope of art would be widely extended.

Nonetheless, there are still some questions faced with imitation theory. First, some artworks might imitate nothing. Second, should the beauty of nature be ascribed to art? Finally, ballet does not involve as many spectacles as others did as a kind of dance. These are different from the Platonic-Aristotelian definition of art. Therefore, imitation theory may not be enough to serve the art system, and philosophers began to develop a new approach: representation theory. According to the representation theory, art is something created out of some intention and requires the recognition of audiences. The representation theory has two major branches: Neo-representation theory and pictorial representation. These two branches have broadened representation theory to not only something similar to the initial object but also a symbol, a logo associated with the original character. Neo-representation theory states that artwork is art if it is about something. In other words, the artwork is an interpretation of something. Obviously, if one thing is an interpretation of something else, it must be about that thing. A very controversial artwork in the history of art, Duchamp’s Fountain, should be a great example of Neo-representation theory. Although it was bought in a store and sent to the gallery directly, it functioned as an interpretation of fountain in the audiences’ mind.

There are four theories on what pictorial representation is: resemblance theory, illusion theory, conventionalist theory, and Neo-naturalist. To clarify, resemblance theory states that X is a represent of Y if X resembles Y; illusion theory claimed X is a representation of Y if X could cause the illusion of Y in the mind of audiences. Conventionalist argued that the fundamental of art is rooted in the agreement of society, rather than external reality. And neo-naturalist theory demonstrated that X is a representation of Y if X triggers the recognition of Y in percipients. The pictorial theory has linked a specific character to a particular symbol, logo, even number. For example, the name “24” would invoke the image of Kobe for the fans of Kobe. However, these theories also have disadvantages. Resemblance theory cannot explain why the combination of twins is not art; illusion theory made it seems unnecessary to pursue a referent of the real object, which is very similar to the latter. Also, the conventionalist theory pales when a picture is even more realistic than actual objects. Neither can neo-naturalist theory demonstrate the necessary relationship between triggering recognition and representation. The deficiencies of representation theory are it neither comes up with a particular definition of art nor designates a necessary form of all artwork. The art world needs a new system to solve this dilemma.

This question might be answered by Heidegger, a German philosopher, born 2200 later Aristotle. Heidegger was influenced by Aristotle but not satisfied with the theory of the latter. Heidegger dived into the origin of art: to determine the art from one work, people must have the criterion to examine them. People need to figure out what artworks are before setting the criterion. However, these questions lead to a more elusive question: what is art? Therefore, this question might fall into a dead loop. To understand this question, Heidegger came up with the difference between “World” and “Earth.” According to Heidegger, the “World” is revealing the ingenuity of “Earth.” Therefore, the world must rely on Earth. As for art, there are two essential features of artworks: first, it set up the world and keeps it moving forward; second, it runs the earth itself into the Open of the World. The responsibility of art is unveiling the truth of “Earth” as its representation. In a nutshell, Heidegger embraced representation theory and refused to separate representation from reality. Van Gogh’s artwork, “Shoes”, is not the real shoes. However, it extracted the essence of shoes he observed. It can be viewed that the material would disappear as a tool in the latter while never fade in the former. On the contrary, art did not vanish with the creation of artwork but persist continuously as the material of artwork. That is the reason why artwork is different from the equipment. In the end, Heidegger concluded that the relationship between artworks and earth is symbiotic. The world tries to surmount earth, while the earth tends to draw the world, and self-opening and concealing are in constant strife.

Comparing the theories of Plato, Aristotle, and Heidegger, the audiences may have a better understanding of decolonial art. It is an art form that emerged in Latin American aimed at understanding modernity in the context of colonization, focuses on patriarchy, feminism, economy. The artwork attached to this paper, “Thomas Lov Radi (Thomas Love Working),” would be a great example of decolonial critique. This is a picture of a female with a book on her head. The dark background did cultivate a solemn atmosphere, the pretty face, and the determined expression of the female also alluded something might happen. On interesting detail is that this book is written by Marcel Proust, a well-known French novelist, critic. According to documentation, this book is one of the 13-volume set of Marcel Proust. This set was highly valued by the intellectuals in Yugoslavian due to its elegant translation. Also, the price of these sets was equal to the one-year salary in Belgrade black market during the Bosnian civil war. (Yugoexport, 2020) In this case, this picture might be an allusion to inequalities faced by female workers.

Definitely, this artwork is not imitating anything. Therefore, it cannot be a qualified artwork according to Plato’s definition. The four theories of pictorial representation may also fail for this artwork. First, it is not a simple resemblance of females and labor. Second, the audiences may not have the illusion of feminism activities when admiring it. Neither can the audience find the trait of conventionalist theory or Neo-naturalist theory in this artwork. However, if the audience associates this artwork with the background of its creation, they may know that it is a silhouette of females in a campaign who fought for nine-hour labor in Yugoslavia. This campaign’s proposal corresponds with this artwork’s name: “Thomas Love Working.” On the one hand, it triggers the recognition of this history in the audiences’ mind; on the other hand, it is an interpretation of the nine-year campaign host by females. Moreover, it has evoked strong empathy and approval of audiences. As mentioned before, patriarchy, feminism, economy, and collectivity are four major concerns of decolonial critique. This artwork has exemplified all of these elements. First of all, it is out of humanitarian concerning females. Plus, this campaign had deferred the disappearance of Yugoslavia by supporting the domestic female workers, which is as well as a protest as colonized people. Noticeably, there was even no violence or chaos in the campaign. It is hard to imagine that its prototype, Yugoexport, was “blind, non-aligned,” as Monika described (Szewczyk, M, Document 14). Those females hugely different from the Gods and heroes in ancient Greek, while they are a great demonstration of “heroism means the equivalence of word and deed.” Doubtlessly, these females are true patriots in Monika’s eyes. Therefore, it would be an excellent artwork that stands for decolonial art.


Silverman, Allan, “Plato’s Middle Period Metaphysics and Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

White, Nicholas P. (1989). “Review of The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy”. Noûs. 23 (2): 254–256. DOI:10.2307/2215984. JSTOR 2215984

Auerbach, Erich (1953). Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Willard R. Trask (trans.). Princeton: Princeton UP. ISBN 0–691–01269–5. 557.

Yugoexport, retrieved from

Szewczyk, M. Irena Haiduk. Document 14. Retrieved from:

Undergraduate student / Research assistant/ Always curious / Opinions are mine

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