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Kant's Paradigmatic Shift in Art Theory


Mar 01 2004
08:13 pm

“The transformation of thought that took place at the end of the eighteenth century represents one of the most dramatic revolutions in the histoy of Western culture. It involved a change from the mimetic theory of art—which had held sway in Western culture for more than two millenium—to the romantic theory of art as expression. Rather than being a mirror held up to nature, art became a lamp illuminating an otherwise darkened world; instead of attempting to re-present reality, the artist now sought to express himself or herself—that is, to press out to the surface whatever was within the self.”

—Roger Lundin, The Culture of Interpretation, 51
Roger Lundin is professor of English at Wheaton College


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.


Mar 02 2004
10:11 am

Henry, part of the reason I posted this quote was to get evaluation from other thinkers such as yourself. Lundin does grossly oversimplify the situation, so your critique is well taken.

In Lundin’s defense, however, several points can be made. First, he adapts the Shakespearean quote rather than quoting or citing it. He may well not intend any direct connection.

Secondly, appeal to ancient Greece is somewhat unfair, given that he did limit his meaning to the last two millenium.

Also, what I thought was interesting was the revolution he was describing, so I didn’t mind him saying “the” mimetic theory. I don’t think he was asserting one unified theory of art prior to Kant. If asked, I’m sure he would readily admit to gross oversimplification. The point, however, was that Kant’s ideas did have an big influence on art theory.

Finally, context does help. He was not arguing his central attitude toward aesthetics, nor does it reflect a fear of imagination. He was merely providing an example of romanticism’s concept of self. Romanticism held a view of the self that emphasized self-fulfillment, which with respect to art, Lundin seemed to argue, is reflected in an emphasis on self-expression. Both ideas—self-fulfillment and self-expression—find significant roots in Kant’s thought.

I was hoping someone with knowledge in art history or art theory could reflect on this idea. Does the Kantian revolution (self-consciously modeled after the Capernican revolution) help explain modern, contemporary, often abstract (nonrepresentational), art?