Art and life as imitation: can we ever separate art and artist?
Bethan Draycott
Bethan Draycott • Jul 15

Art and life as imitation: can we ever separate art and artist?

by Bethan Draycott

Over thousands of years and many cultural movements, the debate over whether art truly imitates life (or vice versa) has become virtually exhausted. From classical philosophy to contemporary studies, what exactly happens in the space between artist and viewer has remained ambiguous. This is often summarised as the concept of mimesis. 

Plato’s Republic (written around 375BC) claimed that art can only ever be an imitation of reality, which is composed of transcendent forms (aka ideas). Aristotle disagreed, declaring art as an act of personal catharsis for the artist - an expression of their ‘inner’ truth. Around 2264 years later, Oscar Wilde’s 1889 essay The Decay of Lying claimed that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”; Wilde then went on to write The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), which seems to condemn this very attitude. 

Historically, it seems that different approaches have taken turns in the limelight, whether the strict imitation of mid-19thcentury realism or the abstract expressionists of the mid-20th century, who established art as a means of conveying the artist’s own perception (as opposed to an objective reality). Despite the fluctuating popularity of each theory, no one seems to assess why it is important. Does the nature of mimesis affect the value of either life or art? And do we have an underscored desire to separate the two? 

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Perhaps the answer can be found in the relationship between art and artist. 

The persistence of the question proves how inextricably linked the two are, and how much they impact one another. I would suggest that, rather than being imitative of each other, they are reactions to one another. Each piece of art is as much produced from old experience as it is designed to elicit new experiences.  

We could even take this a step further, as Sheila Heti did in her novel How should a person be? (2010), and suggest that an artist’s life is an extension of their art, as much an act of creation and adaptation of reality as a painting or poem. The way we live our lives is art in itself. 

But how does this affect our interpretation of art? 

Many believe that the meaning of art is created in conversation with the artist and the viewer. 

However, since their two lives are linked through their perception of the art between them, we must acknowledge the striking interdependence. At this point, interpretation of meaning becomes highly subjective. 

To find a “true” meaning implores the viewer to overcome their own desire to project, remaining detached enough from their experience to only see that of the artist. Obviously, this is impossible. This freedom to creatively interpret meaning can give us the dangerous ability to readjust our interpretation for our own means. 

Susan Sontag, in Against Interpretations (1966), writes that “the interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.”

Without an explicit dialogue between the whole experience of both artist and viewer, the latter often reinterprets art when they find aspects of the artist unacceptable. We subconsciously distance a work from its original meaning. We want and need them to be separate because we want to see the beauty before we see the reality. 

Once we view an artist as problematic, it becomes hard to remove this from our readings of the work. For example, many find it difficult to encounter Machado’s poetic imagery of virgins once they know he married a child. Here, a reader’s enjoyment of the poems is disrupted – the purely sensory beauty of the poetry is lost on us. Naturally (we hope), this makes us feel uncomfortable. And because that is no longer socially acceptable, we reinterpret a text to suit our enjoyment of it. We turn Machado’s maidens into metaphors for spring and innocence, rather than projections of his own life. 

We have to admit that it is fundamentally selfish to reinterpret as such; it is for our own comfort, our own pleasure. We tell ourselves that Michael Jackson is not his music, that Rolf Harris is not his painting. Perhaps the reason the debate has never been settled is that, if we were to accept life and art as mutually reactionary, it would alter our enjoyment of one, in the absence of the other. 

If our lifestyle really is an extension of our artwork, then we surely must apply this to be problematic people we see around us. Do we “cancel” artists, on the basis that their lifestyle is present in their art? Or is it possible to separate impact from context, content from interpretation? 

In some cases, it may depend upon how explicitly their life is present in their work. Granted that all forms of art amount to a sensory experience that can exist for the viewer alone, a piece of art could be appreciated in a purely aesthetic or physical sense, without the overwhelming need to justify it or interpret it as a product of another person. This removes Sontag’s dilemma of reinterpretation because it creates freedom to take art as it is, unbridled by ulterior motive or the sins of its artist. 

On the other hand, even if we refuse to accept their art as an extension of them, we must still hold artists accountable for their harmful life choices. Take film director Bernardo Bertolucci, who directed Last Tango in Paris (1972), involving the infamous “butter scene” which amounted to the onscreen sexual assault of actress Maria Schneider – a scene which was left in the final cut of the film. Bertolucci’s defence was that he “wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress”. In this case, art and life have become merged, dangerously so, at the expense of both the artist and viewers’ wellbeing. Clearly, we cannot separate these two, or continue to enjoy the scene as mere distant “imitation”. 

This becomes most relevant in a commercial capacity. Artists’ livelihoods, and thus lifestyles, are often dependent on their artwork. Thus, an artist’s success is often what enables their decisions, for example, Kevin Spacey, whose success accommodated much of his predatory behaviour. Even if we enjoy their art, if we support it (particularly in a commercial sense), we are actively funding the lifestyle we disagree with.

The adage goes that we vote with our money.  So, if we have a problem with an artist’s lifestyle, we should have a problem with promoting their art. Furthermore, by choosing to cancel an artist for their lifestyle, and boycott their work, we are expressing much-needed solidarity with the victims of their actions and others who have endured similar. In this sense, boycotting or “cancelling” may actually be a very necessary social tool for progress. 

So, if we were to indulge the idea that art can be reduced solely to its sensory value to a viewer, with relative disregard for the artist: the nature of the art would not necessarily change, only its impact on our individual lives. This is a choice we are each free to make. But even if we separate them, we must acknowledge that art belongs in a world of much fewer consequences than the one artists live in, so this can only be done to an extent that doesn’t promote or support the lifestyle of someone problematic. If we are to continue to consume their work, we should make sure they see justice and not profit.

As much as life and art are mutually reactionary, reciprocal imitations - we must allow the realities to coexist: that art has its own value as separate from an artist’s experience, but that an artist must still be held accountable. We cannot use the mimesis debate to distract from the real and often uncomfortable truth, that life and art will always be interlinked. So, on both a social level that aims for justice and an artistic level that seeks to interpret: in order to ever process art’s impact as a whole, we have to indulge the discomfort that may accompany it. 

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