The imitation game

Antonio Leonelli, Still Life with Grapes and a Bird, ca. 1500–10, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

One of the great discoveries of classical antiquity was the principle of mimesis. It’s not that the peoples of the Mediterranean learned to mimetically imitate nature or each other for the first time, but that they elevated an important principle of representation to the level of an artistic ideal.

Despite our culture’s repudiation of classical values (in art, ethics or politics), mimesis hasn’t gone away. Alan Turing’s imitation game of the 1950s is at least two and a half thousand years old. And it harks back, mimetically, to another imitation game, the legendary painting competition between the two leading ancient Greek artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasius (5th century BC). The story is told by the great Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder. Keen to determine which one of them is the greater artist, the two Greek painters challenged each other to a painting contest. Zeuxis painted some grapes so real that even the birds were fooled and tried to peck at them. Parrhasius, on the other hand, placed his painting behind curtains and asked Zeuxis to pull them to reveal the art within. When the latter tried to pull the curtains, it turned out they were also part of the painting, too real to tell the difference between art and nature. And as Parrhasius was declared a winner, mimesis became the driving force of artistic representation. For the rest of the classical period and up until the 19th century, the ancient imitation game was still being played in every corner of artistic Europe.

And then it was succeeded by its sinister younger cousin, simulacrum, whose mission is not to take nature as a source of inspiration, but to reduce humanity to an impoverished version of itself, and drag nature down with it. We start playing a different kind of imitation game, one where the values have been inverted.

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