Let us bear in mind the idea contained within this Chinese proverb: “Man keeps a cat so as to stroke the tiger". In one of his first teachings in his Poetics, Aristotle tells us that mimesis is, above all, essential for experiencing what is near; "to distance oneself so as to get close". The cat as repetition of the tiger ensures an experience which is merely that of substitution, the only possible one given the risk. Visual mimetic forms are more efficient in ensuring the substitution effect, not because they are the only or most perfects means of doing so, but rather the most rapid. This “distanced proximity” should also not be understood as the privilege of looking. For example, the modern search for interactivity using the computer or robotics (as can be demonstrated by the exploration of Mars with robots of the Pathfinder or Mars Explorer types) tries to ensure “touch at a distance”. It is not by chance that “touch at a distance”, by being the most difficult contact to establish, was also that most fantasised in legends involving witches and witch doctors (pricking a voodoo doll).
Touch risks compromising the visual as the primary means of delivering a mimetic effect.
Would images, even the youngest, such as cave figures, have started this path of mimetic experience? Aristotle would have asserted that they marked a call to action (hunting, storytelling, and singing). Plato would have denied this. For Aristotle, humans are primarily instigated into action through mimesis, not because mimesis unites the world by providing and explaining an image, but because mimesis is the first to disconnect and effect the separation which is liberation. Mimesis creates spectator-subjects (at a safe distance), first distancing and then drawing them closer, under the cover of more dangerous links. When something is reflected, imitated, what changes is not what is imitated, but the perspective of those receiving this “reflection”. Mimesis first establishes the possibility of the spectator and the spectator is thus formed, at a distance, separated and with a perspective on what this means.
Aristotle would once again place mimesis at the centre of artistic activity given that within Plato's thinking ideal forms would only be present in things as imitation. In imitating the forms of things artists, Plato affirms, would be promoting eikásia (sensations) through mimesis (imitations of imitations) and not developing noesis the pure knowledge of ideal forms.
Despite Aristotle’s detailed reply this demonization of repetition by Plato was never completely overcome within Western culture. Could it be that Plato set forth a figure so strong, a wishful machine which has still not completed its reification? In the 19th Century Baudelaire was one of those who would once again place the escape from repetition as being central for Modern Art. “Mimesis", taken as a source for impoverished experiences, was mainly characterised in the 20th Century as the refusal of painters, from Impressionism onwards, to "imitate" reality and through inadequate understanding of Benjamin's text, "The work of art with an era of its technical reproducibility” leading to it being transformed into a pamphlet against mimesis.
The repression of mimesis, rather than its interpretation, does however appear to be one of the essential guiding principles of modernity. This is in line with Auerbach’s innovative notion of the “realistic figure” which provides us with another view of mimesis. A vision inspired by how metaphor works, which presupposes that two events, disconnected in time, take on meaning when mimetically connected through art: “The figural [ mimetic] interpretation establishes a link between two events or persons, in such a manner that the former signifies itself but also the latter, while the latter develops or completes the former.”
Lukács found elements of mimesis not only in representative art (such as the novel and the film), but also in abstract painting, in architecture and even in gardening. This actually involves a “double” or “indirect mimesis” given that what is imitated is not the exterior world but the inner life of the artist. Gadamer, in his vision of reality as the “horizon of possibilities still not yet decided upon”, has had to invert the traditional Platonic view of mimesis as that being a copy of reality. For him, art is a play: “The action of a drama (...) does not allow any comparison with reality as a secret means for all copiable similitude.”
As such, “imitation and representation are not just a second version, a copy, but recognition of the essence. This is because they are not merely repetition, but an installation, and the onlooker is engaged with them” (GADAMER, 1960:55). Mimesis, according to Gadamer, is a system of recognising the truth of ideas through art, though carried out within the onlooker. This is indeed a curious mixture of Plato and Aristotle.