Life Imitating Art

the decay of lying

Anti-mimesis [my-mee-sis] is a philosophical position that holds the direct opposite of mimesis (the belief that art imitates life). Its most notable proponent is Oscar Wilde, who held in his 1889 essay ‘The Decay of Lying’ that ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.’

In the essay, written as a Platonic dialogue, Wilde holds that such anti-mimesis ‘results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.’

Wilde’s antimimetic philosophy has had influence on later writers, including Brian Friel. McGrath places it in a tradition of Irish writing, including Wilde and writers such as Synge and Joyce that ‘elevate[s] blarney (in the form of linguistic idealism) to aesthetic and philosophical distinction,’ noting that Terry Eagleton observes an even longer tradition that stretches ‘as far back in Irish thought as the ninth-century theology of John Scottus Eriugena’ and ‘the fantastic hyperbole of the ancient sagas.’ Wilde’s antimimetic idealism, specifically, McGrath describes to be part of the late nineteenth century debate between Romanticism and Realism. Antimimesis, as set out by Wilde in ‘Decay of Lying’ is the reverse of the Aristotelian principle of mimesis.

Far from art imitating life, as mimesis would hold, Wilde holds that art sets the aesthetic principles by which people perceive life. What is found in life and nature is not what is really there, but is that which artists have taught people to find there, through art. Wilde presents the fogs of London as an example, arguing that although ‘there may have been fogs for centuries in London,’ people have only ‘seen’ the ‘wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and turning houses into shadows’ because ‘poets and painters have taught [people] the loveliness of such effects.’ ‘They did not exist,’ asserts Wilde, ’till Art had invented them.’

Halliwell asserts that ‘far from constituting the ne plus ultra of antimimeticism,’ the notion that life imitates art actually derives from classical notions that can be traced as far back as the writings of Aristophanes of Byzantium, and does not negate mimesis but rather ‘displace[s] its purpose onto the artlike fashioning of life itself.’ Halliwell draws a parallel between Wilde’s philosophy and Aristophanes’ famous question about the comedies written by Menander: ‘O Menander and Life! Which of you took the other as your model?,’ noting, however, that Aristophanes was a pre-cursor to Wilde, and not necessarily espousing the positions that Wilde was later to propound. George Bernard Shaw agreed with Wilde.

In his preface to ‘Three Plays’ he wrote ‘I have noticed that when a certain type of feature appears in painting and is admired as beautiful, it presently becomes common in nature; so that the Beatrices and Francescas in the picture galleries of one generation come to life as the parlor-maids and waitresses of the next.’ He stated that he created the aristocratic characters in ‘Cashel Byron’s Profession’ as more priggish than real aristocrats because at the time of writing he had yet to discover that ‘what [he] supposed to be the real world does not exist, and that men and women are made by their own fancies in the image of the imaginary creatures in [his] youthful fictions, only much stupider.’ Shaw, however, disagreed with Wilde on some points. He considered most attempts by life to imitate art to be reprehensible, in part because the art that people generally chose to imitate was idealistic and romanticized.

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