Have you heard the phrase ‘life imitates art’ before and wondered what that means? Maybe you have questioned how much truth that statement holds? The rest of this phrase, made popular by Oscar Wilde’s 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, claims that “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
Now, you might wonder: does life imitate art, or is art imitating life! This is one of those deep philosophical questions, kind of like, “what came first, the chicken or the egg.” Many philosophers have weighed in on this, including Aristotle and Plato. Writers, like Oscar Wilde, and actors, like Bruce Willis, have even shared their opinions. Before you decide which camp you are in, let me explain a little more about what the phrase means.
“Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.” – Oscar Wilde
What does ‘life imitates art,’ mean?
Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet, and playwright was an advocate for the theory of anti-mimesis. To understand what this is, it’s important to know what mimesis means.
Mimesis, which is an Ancient Greek term governing the creation of works of art, has a wide range of meanings. They primarily include imitation, receptivity, representation, mimicry, the act of expression, and the act of resembling. Anti-mimesis, then, is a philosophical position that proposes the opposite of Aristotelian mimesis, which uses deductive logic and analytical means.
In the book Poetics, by Aristotle, he argued that “it is a natural human impulse to make art that imitates the people, places, and events around them.” According to Billy Collings and his lesson in Master Class, “The Aristotelian concept of mimesis involved not just imitation but addition—the poet adds symbolism and structure that lets their audience draw meaning from the work.” Clearly, he believed that art imitates life, and Oscar Wilde disagreed.
Wilde felt that “things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the arts that have influenced us.” His ideas on the subject revolved around the premise that art changes our perception of life. So when we find beauty in nature, it is because we had an emotional reaction to painting or work of art that we had seen before. Basically, we are reliving the emotions we felt when we looked at those paintings. That would be a time when life imitates art and not the other way around.
Plato had two theories when it came to talking about art. We may find one in his work, The Republic, and this seems to be the theory that aligns with Plato’s view on the subject. According to this theory, since art imitates tangible things, then art is always a copy of a copy and leads us even further from the truth and toward illusion.
Plato felt that because art can also stir powerful emotions, that art itself could be dangerous. His other theory described artists as prophets because, thanks to their divine inspiration, they create a better copy of ‘the True.’ What if that painting depicting a forest full of lush green trees the artist is envisioning is better than the burnt dead forest he became inspired by? Therefore, the idea that art is imitation was central to both theories. Plato says that art imitates the objects and events of ordinary life.
“I think when people talk about art imitating life, you’re in real-time.” – Mike Colter
Did the artist paint that picture because they experienced a profound emotion when they witnessed a nature scene?
Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, painted a View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm. We commonly refer to this painting as The Oxbow. The painting depicts a panoramic view of the Connecticut River Valley just after a thunderstorm. Now, did Thomas Cole paint this because he felt so moved by the way the sun peaked out on half of the canvas, despite the angry dark clouds still present on the left? Was he trying to capture a view of untamed wilderness?
According to an article from The Met, master printmaker Basil Hall criticized ‘Americans’ inattentiveness to their scenery, and Cole responded with a landscape that lauds the uniqueness of America by encompassing ‘a union of the picturesque, the sublime, and the magnificent.’
If you look closely, you can see that Thomas Cole painted himself into the painting. He is in the middle and his easel is visible, as is his brush, while he paints “The Oxbow.” This piece was morally significant, besides being beautifully done!
Proponents of the anti-mimesis theory, like Wilde, believe that “What is found in life and nature is not what is really there, but is that which artists have taught people to find there, through art. As in an example posited by Wilde, although there has been fog in London for centuries, one notices the beauty and wonder of the fog because poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects… They did not exist till Art had invented them (F. C. McGrath).”
“It’s weird, like, my life has always imitated art, and my art has always imitated life.” – Sebastian Bach
How do you answer this question?
I feel like this is one of those situations where two things can exist at the same time. Maybe when I am walking around the lake at dusk, the sun looks so beautiful because I have seen Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes. It reminds me of the beautiful colors, and there is water and green space in the painting. Maybe that painting taught me there was a beauty to be found when colors stream across the sky and blend with the clouds.
Perhaps Martin Johnson Heade, an American painter known for his salt marsh landscapes, seascapes, and nature depictions, saw beauty in a scene in front of him and was inspired to recreate it for someone else. Art historians regard his painting style and subject, while derived from the romanticism of the time as a significant departure from his peers. Maybe he found joy in painting what he wanted, even though it was different.
Can you create art that moves people if you haven’t experienced something similar in your life? Does the surrounding beauty inspire the painter to pick up his brush and capture a moment? Or does a moment captured on a canvas, trigger a deeper emotion when you witness something similar in person?
I know for me, as a writer, I draw on the emotions and situations I have had in my actual life. Sometimes, pieces of my story work their way into my fiction pieces. Other times I write the raw, unvarnished truth of my trauma. I would say that is a case for art imitating life. As a reader, I can say that when I read something that triggers an emotional response, I can relate to the characters more because I have my experience to draw from. This still feels like art imitating life.
On the other hand, whenever I see a bee or hear of someone having an allergic reaction (which I have never had) the only thing I can think of is when Thomas J. Sennett dies in My Girl. It amazes me how often I recall the feelings of that scene because of something happening around me in real life. This is definitely a matter of life imitating art for me, as my emotions are tied to the work of art, and not the experience.
“Art imitates life and, sometimes, life imitates art. It’s a weird combination of elements.” – Bruce Willis
So, do you think that life imitates art, or is art imitating life? Does it matter, because either way there is beauty around us? Can both of these things be true at the same? John McGlade, Ph.D. in Architecture & Fine Art, says, “On the text of life, art is the highlighter.”
Maybe they aren’t separate entities of the same thing, like the chicken and the egg. Maybe they go hand in hand like the fabric used to make a shirt. A tool, if you will. Join in on this philosophical debate in the comment section below and maybe we can see what the consensus is.