Imitation in Art as a Dead-end: The reason Hegel would not Appreciate Zeuxis

*cover photo: Ancient Rome, 1957, Giovanni Paolo Panini, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It should come across as paradoxical to even suggest that there are dead-ends in art. Artistic expression cannot be easily confined and it has been proven multiple times in the course of history, that attempts to impose a particular art form as the sole aesthetically correct, more often than not, fail. Impressionism, expressionism and every other initially frowned upon movements that grew to become the canon, contrary to established notions of morality and aesthetics, testify to this claim.

The often unbridgeable distance between the artist and the critic is one of the many manifestations of the problematic of using reason (aesthetics) to decipher the sensuous (even mystical) nature of art. American artist Barnett Newman has even gone as far as to say that ‘aesthetics is for the artist as Ornithology is for the birds’!

Although 20th century works on aesthetics, especially after Adorno, attempted to bridge this distance and find a point where the theorist can meet the artist, Hegel did not take such issues into consideration while lecturing on Aesthetics in the 1830’s .

Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, 1768, Anton von Maron, Schlossmuseum Weimar

One of the main goals of his lectures was to find the purpose of art. Hegel briefly entertained the possibility of imitation as art’s purpose, only to reject it in favour of a more idealistic view, which he inherited from another German, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), whose History of Ancient Art (1764) gave birth to the fields of Archaeology and Art History as we know them today. This idealistic view accepted as art’s purpose the pursuit of beauty. Beauty for Hegel however, is understood only as a means to sensuously expressing the concept of freedom. By expressing freedom, art allows us to face the truth about ourselves and see who we really are. In that way, humanity can examine its impulses and reach a self-conscious state.

Hegel says that art as mere imitation, is short of a dead-end because it cannot live up to the standards needed to embody this high ideal of freedom. Mere imitation means that whatever already exists is made a second time by man as a copy of the already existing. This is a superfluous labour because man tries to compete with nature in its own game. Man will never be able to beat nature due to the restrictions in the means of representation (e.g. a painting exists only in two dimensions, music engages only with the sense of hearing, but nature is free from such restrictions).

Hegel shares two stories to further explain why imitation cannot be the purpose of art. The first story refers to the Scottish traveller James Bruce, who travelled to Abyssinia and showed the painting of a fish to a Turk:

The Turk was impressed at first but then asked Bruce: If this fish shall rise up against you on the last day, and say “you have created for me a body , but no living soul”, how will you defend yourself against such an accusation?

This story, reflecting the dominant iconoclasm of the east, serves to show that imitation is unable to reproduce the essence of life. Man can mimic nature in detail, but the ‘soul’ of things is beyond replication.

The second story is that of the Greek painter Zeuxis. Zeuxis was such a good painter that he could draw grapes which living doves pecked. Hegel does not provide the whole story of Zeuxis, but I think it deserves a closer look. The following passage can be found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History 35,29:

Zeuxis Choosing Models from the Beautiful Women of Croton, 1789, François-André Vincent, Louvre

The contemporaries and rivals of Zeuxis were Timanthes, Androcydes, Eupompus, and Parrhasius.  This last, it is said, entered into a pictorial contest with Zeuxis, who represented some grapes, painted so naturally that the birds flew towards the spot where the picture was exhibited. Parrhasius, on the other hand, exhibited a curtain, drawn with such singular truthfulness, that Zeuxis, elated with the judgment which had been passed upon his work by the birds, haughtily demanded that the curtain should be drawn aside to let the picture be seen. Upon finding his mistake, with a great degree of ingenuous candour he admitted that he had been surpassed, for that whereas he himself had only deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist.

There is a story, too, that at a later period, Zeuxis having painted a child carrying grapes, the birds came to peck at them; upon which, with a similar degree of candour, he expressed himself vexed with his work, and exclaimed: ” I have surely painted the grapes better than the child, for if I had fully succeeded in the last, the birds would have been in fear of it.”

Is the picture above a 17th century attempt at besting Zeuxis? Fernandez’ early work was focused on grape painting. Using chiaroscuro to create a dramatic effect, Fernandez’ grapes ‘imitate’ nature perfectly. Although I don’t think birds pecked any of his paintings, it is certainly not a coincidence that Fernandez was called the ‘modern Zeuxis’. In any case, Hegel would probably not appreciate modern Zeuxis’ work, the same way he did not appreciate the old one’s.
( Four Bunches of Hanging Grapes, 1636, Juan “El Labrador” Fernandez , ©Museo Nacional del Prado)

Hegel sees in Zeuxis’ art the perfection of imitation and says that art will eventually “look like a worm trying to crawl after an elephant” if it keeps up competing with nature. Blind imitation reminds him of the man that could throw lentils through a small opening without missing, and whom Alexander the Great presented with a bushel of lentils, as a reward for his “frivolous and meaningless art”.

This is not the end of Hegel’s ‘attack’ against the art of imitation, but is certainly the end of the most entertaining bit of his critique. Hegel, as we saw, will finally settle with beauty as a means for freedom. Before that however, he will make sure to clarify that art’s purpose cannot also be to simply let us decorate our surroundings or call us into moral or political action. It is especially this last one that will raise the objections of the members of the Frankfurt school a few decades later. Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” will declare that fascism aestheticises art, while communism has to respond by politicising. Adorno in his “Aesthetic Theory” will directly criticise Hegel’s theory and blame him for having betrayed Utopia…

Readings used for Hegel’s Aesthetics

Hegel, G.W.F. 1975. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. translated by T. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (pages 41-54 for the part on imitation)

Houlgate, S. 2016. ‘Hegel’s Aesthetics’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by E.N. Zalta.

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