catapult magazine

catapult magazine


Kant's Paradigmatic Shift in Art Theory


Mar 02 2004
07:12 am

I have several problems with this quote, not least of which is that an English professor is misquoting Shakespeare. The quote being abused in this context is from Hamlet, Act 3, sc. 2, and in that context a) it does not refer to art in general, but only to acting; b) acting (“playing”) is NOT the mirror which is held up to nature, it HOLDS the mirror up to nature. The mirror is our own (the audience’s) imagination, where the reflection takes place. I would argue that that function of art HOLDING the mirror up to nature is true, and remains true regardless of whether that art is a poem by Coleridge (a Romantic) or a painting by Hals, in that art provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our experience of the world.

Art is not, has never been, and will never be a “mirror” that merely and mutely shows us “what nature looks like” in a literal sense.

“For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’t were, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

This kind of confusion regarding even basic aesthetic assumptions is rampant in the evangelical community, but I am particularly discouraged to see this confusion being passed off as higher education at what is widely considered to be a respected institution.

Lundin’s point is grossly over-simplified. He speaks about THE “mimetic theory of art” as if it were a single, unified theory. “Mimesis” is a Greek word meaning “imitation”, and refers to ONE ASPECT or mode of aesthetic theory and is not now, nor has it ever been, the entire kit-and-kaboodle. Even such notables as Plato and Aristotle disagreed a great deal on exactly what was meant by “mimesis” and how it should be applied to thinking about the arts.

The earliest literature we have in any culture is mythology, stories about how things came to be the way they are. Is that not an example of the imagination being used as “a lamp illuminating an otherwise darkened world”?

Lundin also seems to suggest that mimesis plays no part in aesthetic theory after the Romantics, but when Georg Lukacs, a significant figure in 20th C lit-crit “defines ‘Historicism’ as the writer’s ‘fidelity to history’ or as a faithful reproduction of the past (1937), he is invoking a mimetic theory of both history and literature” (Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory 254).

The quote is admittedly taken out of context, but it seems clear to me that it is intended as an expression of the author’s central attitude towards aesthetics. You should correct me if I’m wrong on that, anton. Part of the reason that it pisses me off so much, and it REALLY pisses me off, is that it is a direct expression of the literalist, rationalist bias, and again, confusion, that seems to infect evangelical attitudes about the arts at every level of thought and practice. Faith is fundamentally an imaginative act, but again and again Christians demonstrate that they are afraid of imagination.