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Andrew Watson

Mimesis in Aristotle and Pollock

'Metaphors and epiphanies of probable and possible worlds': Aristotle's concept of mimesis and its significance for non-representational 'abstract art', with particular reference to Jackson Pollock

In a recent introduction to Philosophy of Art, it is stated that 'Plato and Aristotle thought that the arts of poetry, painting, sculpture, dance and music shared a common feature: they were all involved in imitation'.[1] It is argued that the theory of art 'presupposed in the writings of Plato and Aristotle' is: 'x is an artwork only if it is imitation'.[2] This theory is then shown to be false or too narrowly restrictive as it cannot accommodate the apparently non-imitative 'pure colour fields' of twentieth-century artists like Mark Rothko or pure instrumental music. In conclusion, what Plato and Aristotle assumed arose as the result of 'what was available to them. It is only through the benefit of hindsight that we can see how far off they were'.[3]

In these terms, Plato and Aristotle seem to have no significance to twentieth-century abstract art. If there is a deeper and more complex relationship between their ideas and paintings produced centuries later, little attempt is made to explore the possibilities. It seems that the superficial label of mimesis keeps them locked in their own culture.

It is the purpose of this article to explore Aristotle's conception of mimesis and its link to nature and to the metaphysical realm, which deserves deeper consideration in relation to our responses to twentieth-century art, particularly that of Jackson Pollock whose work and approach will be discussed.

Unlike Plato, who, in his fixation with eternal forms, viewed the natural world as an illusory realm, Aristotle sought to give a satisfactory account of nature, studying material things, natural phenomena and general aspects of nature in a systematic manner. Aristotle argued that the ideal or the universal can be found in the particulars and this became the cornerstone of his metaphysics of nature. This is generally recognised to be the most fundamental difference between Aristotle and his master, Plato.

It is true, as Aristotle states quite clearly in the Poetics, that 'Epic and tragic poetry, as well as comedy, dithyramb, and most music for aulos and lyre, are all, taken as a whole, kinds of mimesis' (1447a).[4] But Aristotle made a distinction between useful crafts and fine arts. He said that 'Art [techne] either brings to an end [it realises and fulfils] what nature cannot achieve, or it mimesises nature' (Physics, 199a). To understand Aristotle's use of the word 'mimesise' is an important first step in the process of freeing oneself from the biased overtones of the verb 'to imitate'.

At 1448b of the Poetics Aristotle states what he feels to be the core of art and poetry. 'It is clear' he begins, 'that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature'. The first is that 'imitation is natural to man from childhood' and that 'man learns first by imitation'; the second is that 'it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation'. Aristotle thus initially uses the term mimesis to connote the duplication of sounds in a straightforward sense. But this mimesis also serves as a vehicle through which learning can be expressed and conveyed. It is also asserted at 1448b that the 'delight in seeing a picture is that one is at the same time learning, gathering the meaning of things'.

One of the most important additions to these passages is when Aristotle develops another strand of meaning from mimesis to show that it is not solely located in elementary perception of objects, but that it 'involves the formal properties of the mimetic object'.[5] If one has not seen the thing in a picture that is being represented, one's 'pleasure will not be in the picture as an imitation of it, but will be due to the execution or colouring or some similar cause' (Poetics, 1448b) — or in other words, the work's formal properties.

It is the objects of mimesis that have been claimed to reveal the 'full character of Aristotelian mimesis' of which nature (physis) and action (praxis) are the two core objects.[6] Nature is discussed in the Physics and contains Aristotle's celebrated claim he techne mimeitai ten physin, usually translated as 'Art imitates nature'. Bredin/ Santoro-Brienza's analysis of this statement is important and worth citing in full as it clears away the misleading nature of the above translation. They emphasise that:

Aristotle does not say that art mimesises natural objects, but that it mimesises nature — that is, nature itself, the universal immanent process of self-unfolding, the internal principle that produces and manifests itself in natural beings. Nature, understood in this way, is not a thing or an object, nor a set of things or objects. It is not an empirically observable object or phenomenon at all, nor any kind of datum or given. And nature in this sense cannot be copied or imitated or represented by any kind of concrete image... what art 'imitates' is, rather, the teleological dynamic of nature[7]

Aristotle explains that 'Nature is the end for the sake of which. For if a thing undergoes a continual change toward some end, that last stage is actually that for the sake of which'. This also applies to the arts as they also 'make their material' and 'we use everything as if it were there for our sake. For we also are in a sense an end' (Physics 194a). So nature has its end in itself, and art has man as its aim, as art is the result of an idea or plan in the creator's mind. As Bredin/ Santoro-Brienza sum up, a proper translation of he techne mimeitai ten physin would be 'Art produces extrinsically as nature unfolds immanently'.[8] In other words, art is an emergent process and nature is an emergent process.

The second division of nature into praxis also benefits from elucidation. Action might be seen to stand for concrete behavioural things like talking and moving but Aristotle is speaking about one single action. The multiplicity of actions and things that are shown by, and happen to characters in plays cannot be unified, as some of these, such as the hero of the Odyssey getting wounded at Parnassus and his feigning of madness 'had no necessary or probable connection with one another' (Poetics,1451a). Homer made no attempt to unify actions understood in the behavioural sense because these types of things that are unconnected cannot be unified. Instead Homer's subject was an 'action with a unity' (Poetics, 1451a) of a different kind: a single spiritual occurrence whose inherent creative principle unfolds to reveal one essential plot. Aristotle further confirms his position by comparing poetry with history.

Like Plato, Aristotle also realised that the poet does not always write about particular events or facts. Aristotle states that 'the poet's task is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, that is, what is possible as being probable or necessary' (Poetics, 1451a-b). He explains that the historian 'describes the thing that has been', and the poet 'a kind of thing that might be', concluding that poetry is something more philosophical and of graver importance than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars' (Poetics, 1451a-b). Although not made explicit in the passage just cited, Aristotle's conception of mimesis is implicit in it. Things that are possible and probable cannot be detected through empirical observations and cannot be copied in a representational way.

Later in the Poetics at 1460b Aristotle specifies that the poet is a 'mimetist' and 'must of necessity mimesise one of three objects: things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be'. Obviously, to use the last category as an example, 'things as they ought to be' are not actual objects that can be imitated. This clearly differs considerably from Plato's idea of art as generating inferior copies of real objects. Aristotle believed that artists deal with truth by looking at possibilities and probabilities 'with the imaginative, creative, fictional constructions of symbolic and ideal worlds'.[9] He argued that 'it may be impossible that there should be men such as Zeuxis painted. "Yes", we say, "but the impossible is the better thing; for the paradigm or ideal type must go beyond [reality]"' (Poetics, 1461b).

So, art, in Aristotle's terms, consists not in imitating an ideal form but rather in composing an ideal form. Verisimilitude in art means that it conforms to laws of 'ideal probability and necessity' as it is through art that 'we encounter metaphors and epiphanies of probable and possible worlds'.[10]

It is therefore apparent that Aristotle could not have meant that artists should slavishly copy nature in order to achieve an elementary verisimilitude in their works. This is to simplify what is obviously a much more intricate matter and is too restrictive in its analysis: the very thing of which Aristotle often stands accused. Bredin/ Santoro-Brienza's sensitive, sophisticated account realises that in Aristotelian terms, works of art are 'co-realities or verisimilitudes of reality'.[11]

There have been many twentieth-century artists who have sought to paint 'reality'. Georgio Morandi and Piet Mondrian did so cerebrally, Jackson Pollock, instinctively.[12] To use Pollock as an example, it is worthwhile considering his work and his approach in light of Aristotle's conception of mimesis.

Pollock's alignment with nature was finely tuned. His connection with nature's intrinsic patterns, rhythms and structures gave rise to a process in the artist that inspired him to produce dynamic, yet carefully wrought images full of the 'epiphanies' that Bredin/ Santoro-Brienza speak of. The artist gives us insights with things on various levels, producing layers of meaning that we can compare with those that we recognise in the physical world such as the structures of trees, for example. The artist, however, has penetrated further, giving us a new world to consider, transcending the stuff of paint and its physical properties towards a universal fractal structure that cannot be empirically observed.[13] An understanding of the principle of such structures, not only allows a deeper insight into Pollock's work, but also throws light on Aristotle's concept of mimesis, especially in connection with the aesthetics of music, which many philosophers, like Carroll, feel mimetic theory cannot account for.

When we look at clouds, coastlines or trees, we experience on one level an immediate response to their intrinsic beauty, and this familiarity seems to be a shared human experience. But what most observers of nature do not realise is that a fractal, a mathematical principle of self-similarity, lies behind the patterns that we see on a daily basis, and is a principle of profound mathematical and scientific importance — an invisible yet tangible universal that beats at the heart of the universe. This principle is also found in what we hear. 1/f noise, its origins still a mystery to science, has been found in various physical systems like sounds from air and water movement, and in music, covering a vast range from medieval to the Beatles.[14]

What links our experience of 1/f noise with other natural phenomena or music with painted images is that, 'aesthetically, our visual and auditory senses are "tuned" to the borderland between regularity and irregularity, the detail of which is captured simply by the notion of statistical self-similarity and fractal dimension',[15] which in the case of clouds, for example, is connected with spatial dimensions, and in the case of 1/f noise, with time. Thus, for a truly engaging structure to emerge in a painting, the application of paint has to be formed in a way that lies on the edge of randomness. If the paint is too uniform, the images lose power, if it is too chaotic it is not possible for a structure to emerge. Similarly, fractal generated music demonstrated three different types of noise, the first of which, so called 'white' music, is too random, and virtually unbearable to listen to, 'Brown' music or 1/f2 is too synchronized, whereas 1/f noise is closest to real music and the most pleasing to the ear. It has been claimed that these 'measurements show that music is imitating the characteristic way our world changes in time',[16] and at the same time, transcending it. This suggests an answer to a concern that many philosophers have had, and which was first voiced by Plato, namely that in music without words it is 'extraordinarily difficult to know what the rhythm and harmony without speech are supposed to signify and what worthwhile object they imitate and represent' (Laws II, 669e).[17]

Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist, widely recognised to be one of his most beautiful and harmonious paintings, has a fractal dimension of approximately 1.67, which accords with the Golden Mean, a principle of proportion that the Greeks first recognised as being present in nature.[18] Now for Pollock to have arrived at this conclusion without using any traditional mathematical formulas, or painting techniques, suggests that the artist's emotional alignment with the natural world was so sensitively attuned that he was able to unlock a universal in a highly original way. Thus Pollock anticipated Benoit Mandelbrot's proof of the universal's existence in nature by twenty five years, his now celebrated Mandelbrot Set, which was itself visually released from a formula that had existed for some time.[19]

But if one accepts that art and music mimesise the 'teleological dynamic of nature', how exactly do they do this? If 'art is the result of an idea or a plan in the creator's mind' what form does this artistic plan take? Klempner has wondered if Pollock has 'a plan in his mind' at all or is it rather that the painting follows its own intrinsic laws which 'the painter has no choice but to follow?'[20]

It has been shown that Pollock's crucial anchor layer of paint with which he began his drip paintings was completed in under a minute, an extremely short period of time given the large-scale of the canvas. This is all the more astounding because the patterns created were 'complex and intricate'.[21] It has been speculated that once the process of dripping paint had begun, this '''triggered" an implicit or instinctive recognition of the fractal geometry pouring onto his canvas'.[22] The conclusion drawn from this is that 'Pollock's actions weren't driven purely by conscious deliberation'[23] and his appreciation of nature was therefore instinctive or in Pirsigian terms, pre-intellectual.

For the defining principle of the whole work to emerge so fluently and purely at the outset of the artistic process is surely significant. This emergence seemed to have happened at a pre-intellectual level, and once registered, first emotionally and then intellectually by the artist, he seems to have experienced a type of magnetic pull to fractal patterns, fascinated by what he was recognising intuitively and visually, which he assembled, broke up and re-assembled into layer upon layer of complex harmonies, a dynamic process of emergence and reductionism, until a greater whole emerged. Is this whole something as it 'ought to be', the 'ideal type that goes beyond'?

Pollock's richly textured canvases continue to captivate large numbers of people who view them. The works exude a still, resonating force, and allow the viewer to step into the same world that Pollock found so arresting. This can work on two levels: in the recognition of nature's harmony; and in the recognition of a transcendent harmony for which the colours and patterns act as trigger.[24] Above the painting's colour and texture, which on one level can produce a pleasurable response, lies the work's underlying fractal forms conforming to laws that are 'ideal probable and possible', creating in us not only deeper understanding, but also many other feelings like joy or wonder. This might partly answer the question that one philosopher has asked, namely 'what it is about [mimetic] art that enables it to represent its (ideal, typical) subjects in a way that is aesthetically rewarding'.[25]

The core of this universal wonder is no doubt the same one that Plato believes the poet arrives at through divine inspiration. Aristotle too points to the non-material aspect of 'reality itself' but has followed a different path from that taken by Plato, one involving reflection and analysis of matter in the ephemeral realm. It is a wonderful thought to consider mathematicians, scientists and artists 'composing' ideal forms because in Aristotelian terms, this is what happens when true engagement with nature has taken place. To merely copy nature or dryly analyse it, is not to create at all. To mimesise nature is to create through 'action with a unity', like a single pulse that stilly and quietly unfolds itself, like a cloud in wind whose shape changes almost imperceptibly into myriad fractal forms, each one equally as harmonious and beautiful as the last, but the cloud nevertheless remaining one form.

Aristotle may not then have been as surprised as some might think if he had been presented with an image of the type that Pollock produced. Pollock, like many artists before him, knew that his art could not in its essence, 'better' nature. Aristotle recognised this too. In his Politics he mentions that 'the eye of one person' taken in isolation, 'would be fairer' than the one 'in the picture' (1291b). If the artist only copied a pattern in nature then Plato would have been right to condemn it. But Pollock has not done this. He told us something more about nature, more about the universe, by recognising that the goal orientated extrinsic process he was involved in as an artist was analogous with the intrinsic progression of nature.

Science has shown that Pollock did not 'mimic what patterns in Nature looked like' but 'instead used Nature's motion — chaos — in his painting technique and hence generated pure Nature in his paintings'.[26] This calls into question the accuracy of describing Pollock as an Abstract Expressionist as his 'patterns are far from abstract'.[27] This then gives rise to the need to re-assess the relevance of Aristotle's concept of mimesis in relation to so called abstract art. As highlighted in this article, a more sensitive reading of what Aristotle says would still allow for a connection to be made between his ideas and the 'pure colour fields' of artists like Mark Rothko, because Aristotle realised that pleasure could be taken from a painting based purely on the work's formal properties. With the benefit of scientific analysis of Pollock's work, the connection between Aristotle and twentieth-century art is further strengthened. In fact, there could hardly be an artist who more aptly fits an Aristotelian based theory than Pollock because the artist has made manifest in physical form, an ideal, without copying anything: he has instead 'combined' the 'scattered elements' (Politics, 1291b) and truly mimesised nature.


1. Noel Carroll, Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Iintroduction, London, 1999, p.21.

2. Ibid., p.21.

3. Ibid., p.22.

4. All passages that quote Aristotle are taken from Jonathan Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle, 2 vols., Princeton (New Jersey), 1999.

5. Hugh Bredin and Liberato Santoro-Brienza, Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Introducing Aesthetics, Edinburgh, 2000, p.37.

6. Ibid., p.38.

7. Ibid., p.38.

8. Ibid., p.38.

9. Ibid. p.40.

10. Ibid. p.40.

11. Ibid., p.42.

12. The exhibition catalogue of Pollock's work that has been used in the formation of this article is Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel, eds., Jackson Pollock: New Approaches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York , 1999.

13. For a fractal analysis of Pollock's work see Richard P. Taylor, Adam P. Micolich, David Jonas, 'Using Science to Investigate Jackson Pollock's Drip Paintings', Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7 no. 8-9, 2000, pp.137-50.

14. See Heinz-Otto Peitgen, Dietmar Saupe, eds., The Science of Fractal Images, New York, 1980, pp.39-44. I am most grateful to my colleague Dr. Martin Baker for drawing this book to my attention and also for being so generous in sharing his ideas with me.

15. Extract taken from correspondence with Dr. Martin Baker.

16. Heinz-Otto Peitgen, Dietmar Saupe, op. cit., (note 14), p.42.

17. John M. Cooper, ed., Plato Complete Works, Indianapolis, 1997.

18. Note taken from a lecture on the connection between maths and art given by Dr Martin Baker at Loretto School, 2002.

19. The formula was Z n+1 = Zn2 + C. Mandelbrot's 'Set' was printed in colour from a computer. I am grateful to Dr Martin Baker for drawing my attention to this.

20. Extracts taken from correspondence with Dr. Geoffrey Klempner.

21. Richard P. Taylor et al, op. cit. (note 13) p. 146.

22. Ibid., p. 148.

23. Ibid., p.148.

24. See Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, London, 1999, especially chapters 19 and 20.

25. The neurobiologist, Semir Zeki, has shown in his stimulating and important book, Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain, Oxford, 1999, that the neurological response of the observer of a piece of art is homeomorphic (ie. mimesises) the neurological state of the artist that conceived the work, a significant claim that deserves deeper consideration with regard to aesthetics, and especially to Aristotle's conception of mimesis. 'Aristotle's use of the concept of mimesis is similar to the mathematical concept of "homeomorphism" where the intrinsic properties of one mathematical object are compared to the intrinsic properties of another, apparently different system'. Extract from correspondence with Dr Martin Baker.

26. Sebastian Gardner, 'Aesthetics', in A. C.Grayling, ed., Philosophy 1: A Guide through the Subject, Oxford, 1995.

27. Richard P. Taylor et al, op. cit. (note 13) p.149.