Friday, January 23, 2015

Imitation or Invention in the Arts?

On his Italian Journey, Goethe attended a meeting of the Academy of the Olympians. It appears to have been something like a large-scale “Socrates CafĂ©” – since there were about 500 people in attendance.

The discussion was one which people have been having about art for a while now, and which is worth continued discussion. I particularly like how Goethe puts it:

“Which has been of greater benefit to the Arts – Invention or Imitation? Not a bad idea, for it one treats the alternatives as exclusive, one can go on debating it for centuries” (Part 1, Sept. 22).

Another way of putting it: should one be a classicist or avant garde?

Goethe makes the observation that “By and large, the advocates of Imitation received the greater applause because they voiced what the common herd thinks.” This may give the false impression among those not familiar with his body of work that Goethe fell on the side of Imitation. However, we must not forget that through most of his writing career Goethe was a neoclassicist. But he most certainly started off as an “invention” writer with The Sorrows of Young Werther.

More, I think Goethe is correct in his observation that the alternatives are not exclusive. The best writers have invented new things precisely as they were imitating. Goethe certainly was one such writer. Shakespeare was another. Frederick Turner is yet another. They all drew on classical forms and ideas while inventing new forms and developing new ideas within those formalist constraints. I try.

The combination requires an understanding that using classical forms is not constraining and that it’s not true that it’s all been done. Postmodern artists believe both – that classical forms are constraining and that it’s all been done. You would think that if you think that it’s all been done that you would just write in traditional forms and be a classicist, but that’s not what happened with the postmodernists. They somehow combined their attitude with a rejection of classicism and form. The result is the muddle mess that is postmodern art.

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