In Book X of his magnum opus, the Republic, Plato describes art in terms of mimesis, or “imitation.” Poets, painters and the like, according to the exchange presented in this dialogue, produce representations or likenesses of real-world objects, but never the objects themselves.
Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles might contain a depiction of a table and chair, but obviously not a concrete table and chair, and even less so the idea of what it is that makes these objects tables and chairs, respectively.
That’s what the mimetic theory would contend, anyway.
For the better portion of the past 2,400 years since Plato, it’s consistently been among the foremost artistic theories in the Western world. If we look upon Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man or Raphael’s St. George and the Dragon with admiration, it’s due in no small part to the fact that we find these to contain vivid and accurate representations of human beings.
But tell an artist all he’s doing in his work is imitating the external world, and I suspect it’ll only be a matter of time until he gets fed up and does something different altogether out of spite.
Fast forward to Paris in 1924. The cobblestone streets are slick with rain. An entire generation of young men has been decimated by the war. The smell of absinthe and idle laughter drift with languor outside café windows in Montparnasse as those who are left alive wonder what the hell to do with their lives.
André Breton sits at a table with some friends, drinking a Côtes du Rhône. They’re talking about Baudelaire and Sigmund Freud while Breton keeps turning over last night’s dream in his mind. Antonin Artaud half-raves and half-drones about The Interpretation of Dreams before expressing his desire to drunkenly rewrite Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat for the sake of experimentation.
Breton takes a long walk back to his home in the Quartier Pigalle. Beneath a steady drizzle, he daydreams about an army of bees attacking a bear and the daft idea of Rimbaud being sober aboard his drunken boat.
“There’s the world around us. Surfaces. Appearances,” Breton thinks to himself. But what about the infinitude of thoughts, logical or otherwise, that swirl about everyone’s head every day—especially the ones we seem not to notice—and why does no one dare do something with them?
Inside Breton’s apartment on rue Fontaine, Simone Kahn is taking an afternoon nap. Everything is quiet save for the obstinate sound of water droplets exploding onto the Parisian pavement below. Breton walks over to his study to find a copy of Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre on top of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal.
He sits down at his desk with a thunderstorm in his head. Breton grabs a pen and some paper. It seems to him minutes, though Simone Kahn would swear he’d sat there for hours. When his hand finally stops moving, he looks at the first page, upon which he’s written at the top, “Manifeste du Surréalisme.”
The Surrealist movement as founded by Breton would strive to create art from unconscious thoughts against the supposed rationality of life. Dreams would not be reviled and incomprehensible movies played out during sleep, but a direct source of creative impetus.
As far as the western world is concerned, the surrealists weren’t the first group of creatives to eschew mimesis in their art. That distinction might go to the Post-Impressionists like Toulouse-Lautrec in the visual sphere, or expressionists like Kafka in literature. But I’m no critic, so don’t take my word for it.
Still, they are the first group to my knowledge to actively subvert mimesis in favor of the illogical and outlandish.
The Surrealists deserve due props for making us reckon with our unconscious selves in the creative sphere. Their influence reverberates by way of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, Theatre of the Absurd, and—for those of you who’ve seen it—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Let the reader interpret these aphorisms as they will; for me to do it for them would be robbery.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of Lu Tianyu on Flickr.
Horus Alas is a senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.