As long as human beings have walked this earth, visual arts have been a cultural part of humanity. There is no historical record of a human society that did not have art. Many cultures such as the Aztecs even made their utilitarian objects such as pots into beautifully pleasing works of art. The pot did not need intricate patterns and swirls to function as a vessel for carrying water. Yet the person who made that pot for a specific function, chose to make it beautiful as well so that it could be enjoyed. Because art brings people joy. Some may say that to be a human, is to be an artist. It is so ingrained in us that it reaches down to the core of who we are as humans. I would argue even further that art is uniquely human. Have you ever seen your dog pick up a stick to draw a picture of a tree in the dirt because he thought it would be a nice thing for the two of you to enjoy looking at? Yeah, mine hasn’t either. Art is an activity for the humans.
A part of the uniquely human nature of art is imitation.
And with that statement, a studio full of contemporary artists go into an uproar because to say such things is too definitive and confining to art. They may say that imitation does not leave room for “self-expression.”
But what if I said that art isn’t as much about “self-expression” as it is about Life Expression.
What if I told you that art was so much bigger than a canvas, a sculpture or even you? What if I told you that it stretches beyond the entire universe and billions of stars and planets in the sky?
Well, that’s what I’m telling you.
When an artist creates, whether they realize it or not, they are expressing something about the very essence of life. They may intentionally paint a waterfall to imitate one they’ve seen before. Or they may simply imagine what a hypothetical waterfall could look like and paint from their imagination. But the idea of a waterfall that they have experienced in some form is influencing their art. Even if someone has never seen a waterfall in any form at any point in their entire life seeks to paint a waterfall, they will be influenced by their exposure to water at some point in their life.
I would take this even further beyond naturalistic art and into abstract art. The shape, line, stroke, color, tone, form, or texture of anything that can be created by the human imagination exists in some form somewhere outside the individual person. These elements are all around the artist in the natural world and exist independently of the artist. The artist’s job is to take those elements and create them into something as if we had never seen it before. This is why art can still move us time and time again even though imitation is an unavoidable characteristic of human creativity. This is why people went crazy over Jackson Pollock’s work. Although everyone had seen the effects of gravity on free falling liquids (just imagine dropping a bowl of cake batter or knocking over a glass of milk), he presented a timeless phenomenon in a new exciting way. Yet even in his art world shattering rebellion of convention, he was an imitator. He imitated life in a child’s finger painted canvas and in the basic laws of physics. To be a human is to be an artist. And to be an artist is to be an imitator.