Our earliest learning steps are of mimetic nature: it is by example that we learn to bring a spoon of food to our mouth, or to unite the palms of both our hands to clap. The people and things around us at in our early years constitute the origin of our habits, ticks and expressions. Once we become self-sufficient beings, the act of imitation carries out oftentimes just as unconsciously: your smiling, sneezing, or yawning can elicit my smiling, sneezing, or yawning. But next to these small gestures, imitation can also be a fundamental transmitter of artistic skills, crafts, language, and traditions. What alternative theories on mimesis can offer us tools with which to understand systems of passing on cultural and embodied knowledge in the arts?
For a long time art tried to recreate the world around it in perfect detail, striving for the ultimate mimetic creation. Skills in achieving the exact representation of qualities such as shadows and colour were greatly praised. Artists have been fascinated by the concept of mimesis as a means of gaining understanding of – perhaps even getting ahold of – the world around them. Their exploration of mimesis, either as a veracious imitation of reality or as a perception of experience, has been condemned, criticised, and acclaimed by their contemporaries. According to Keith Moxey mimesis is an “unending record of our continuing beguilement with the appearance of the world around us” . Why, he asks himself, have artists striven and felt the persistent need to grasp their own perceptual experiences? For Barbara Maria Stafford, mimesis – which she defines as the faithful representation of the world – has been essential in our need to organise our “inscape” with the self-organising external world that is ever evolving .
The mimetic process is in a constant state of change as artists tend to keep searching for creative possibilities to visually engage with their surroundings. Louis Daguerre’s invention of photography, for instance, entirely changed the expansion of the concept of mimesis. Suddenly it was there: the possibility of perfect recreation. Some celebrated and embraced it, others criticised it. What was feared? With the increasing popularisation and availability of photography a democratisation of art was finally possible, gates could be torn down. Or was it the belief that skill would not play a part in creation anymore? To some, photography was nothing more than the “industrial imitation of art for commercial purposes” .
Unlike these cynical beliefs, photography made the ball in artistic creation roll, and one movement followed the other. The external is dead, the internal is now king. Suddenly we find ourselves in a time where realistic pencil drawings show up in our Instagram reels and we swipe with indifference: they have become kitsch. With the rise in AI (Artificial Intelligence) tools we seem to be at the brink of another ‘invention of photography.’ The art world is divided, some applauding here and scepticism there. Another mimetic crisis. What is left to do? Emeritus professor Kevin LaGrandeur deems the place we are in as a ‘reverse mimesis’: “we made AI in our image and it started superseding us in its very imitation of our abilities … we now need to embrace the next wave in the dialectic. We have to imitate AI in order to stop it from dominating us” .
In the process of the building of communities, mimesis plays an important role, and this happens in internet communities as well through memes. The “production and dissemination of this visual language”  moves in an exponential way, with memes constantly appearing and dying. ‘Memesis’ then
is the process of a community creating itself through the spreading of its culture … [in which] every visual iteration serves as a brick toward the meme ideology, but the digital mirror that the meme is reflects not the likeness of the community but an Ideal-I. It creates, tests, and validates with the community an ideal answer projected onto the tackled frustration .
As memes move constantly and are not bound by a communal ideology, they are the “unconscious rhizome [that] helps the core community live and survive, [and through its promotion of the mirrored I they are] in their subject …nearer from mimesis, an imitation of reality by the mean of art, than memetic” .
Mimesis also has a long shared history with colonialism. Many scholars have approached mimetic concepts from the angle of its inscription into colonial processes and how renewed uses of mimetic theorising may shed new light into our understanding of (post)colonial phenomena – such as indigenous resistance and anticolonialism – in world history. Ricardo Roque considers mimesis relevant both as interpretive tool and as means of events of colonial and imperial histories. In accordance with Stafford, he concludes that mimesis and imitation can be seen as practices through which colonial agents organised their social lives, daily routines, and strategies in relation to the local worlds they encountered . How did the colonisers incorporate and reappropriate indigenous ideas, customs, techniques in their arts and culture?
In theatre, dance performance, and other performing arts, the notion of mimesis has been of importance for several centuries. Like in ancient Greek tragedies, the actor on stage mimics relatable daily scenes to pass on a morale in everyday life. According to what John Martin proposed in the 1960s with his highly criticised theory of inner mimicry, a ‘passive’ audience member can have the experience of dancing just by watching a performer dance . Spectators of documentary film oftentimes attempt to separate the veracity of events from the staged scenes. In this context, musing on contemporary mimetic qualities also leads to insights on the frail distinction between fiction and reality, between subject and object. What knowledge can we obtain by imitating a situation, for instance in the re-enactment of historical events? And how can these imitations transform our socio-political reality, as proposed in the performances of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed?
Can the expansion on the concept of mimesis also invoke a discussion on replication and authenticity in the visual arts? Is every language – the highest level of mimetic behaviour according to Walter Benjamin  – based on an onomatopoeic fundament, and what other ways does mimesis enter the linguistic sphere? Do we really find old television series humorous, or are we merely tempted to join along the canned laughter track by means of mimicry?
Simulacrum is calling for papers and art submissions which playfully expand our understanding of mimesis in the arts beyond realistic representation and explore the contemporary potential of this concept from ancient times. The deadline for this C4P is February 19th, 2023. Submissions and further inquiries can be written to firstname.lastname@example.org. For visual contributions, please note that Simulacrum is printed in duotone. Please send articles (of 2.000 words maximum) as .doc or .docx and visual work as .pdf.