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  The concept of imitation in art stretches back to antiquity, and few terms in art theory have been more misunderstood. The concept has been out of favour since Romanticism wrongly equated imitation with copying and made it the hallmark of lack of originality. While the Latin term imitatio is associated with the Greek mimesis, in art theory it tends to mean not just the copying of nature but the emulation of the best of the existing canon of works and was so discussed in Quintilian\'s Institutio Oratoria. It was never a question of slavishly copying older art, but rather of engaging in dialogue with the best of the past.

In artistic traditions that depend on tradition and conservatism, such as those of the Middle and Far East, ‘imitation’ in this sense was the central creative procedure. ‘Originality’ was hardly an issue, and an individual artist\'s excellence was measured more in terms of his re-creation of existing forms and styles than of the creation of new ones. In the West, this approach was followed until the Renaissance, though some individual artists, for example Apelles, Praxiteles and Dioscorides, did make a name for the excellence of their contribution. But the idea of an individual artist having something personal to say, within or outside the tradition, hardly became prominent until the end of the Middle Ages. Therefore, while imitation was at least an issue throughout the Middle Ages, it was only from the Renaissance on that it became central to many theories of art, and was institutionalized by the academies (which needed to reconcile a belief in rules and precedent with a sense of invention, which, they claimed, was absent in the craft-dominated guilds).

Thus the doctrine of copying the great artists of the past was, at first, successful, but later became ossified into a mindless, unquestioning veneration of the past. A dogma that influenced training throughout a student\'s apprenticeship and became a straitjacket for all but the strongest creative personalities. Those who did escape (for example Rubens) gained great profit from studying older art. However, those who remained under its yoke were drained of originality. Beginning with the Romantics\' veneration of originality as an essential rather than learned quality, imitation in the 20th century has become the site of parody and pastiche, and as such forms an important aspect of postmodernism. MG PD

Further reading K.E. Maison, Art Themes and Variations: Five Centuries of Interpretations and Re-creations.



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