Gigi Soh

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"Does Art imitate Life, or Life imitate Art?"

An article written for Storehouse, Issue 20


The answer towards the long-standing debate between “Art imitating Life, and Life imitating Art” just like that of the chicken and egg analogy lies in the presence of context. 

“If you remove something from the context of its everyday environment, does it still exist as intended–or does it become something else entirely?” - Daveion Thompson

This article elaborates on the argument of both standpoints, highlights on the evolution of the relationship between art and life, and acknowledges its influence on the progression of society.

Art in itself is something that is non-definitive. In the past, often considered as the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in the form of a painting or sculpture. In the present, a way of expression beyond the means of tangibility. In the form of possibly anything, a spectacle of the display of an emotion, bringing across a point or even putting everyday objects in different context.

Throughout the human history of art, philosophers, artists and scholars have formulated strong standpoints on the conclusion towards this discussion. In the Republic*, Plato says that art imitates the objects and events of ordinary life. He believed in the logic of art being twice removed from the truth. In other words, explaining that a work of art is a copy of a copy of a form. 

Plato practiced the concept of ‘idea’ being the ultimate reality and perceived concrete things as hazy representations of the ideal type. An example, being the painting of a chair. The idea of the ‘chair’ originated from the mind of the carpenter, which he then used the material wood to give it a physical form. The painter then creates the picture from imitating the form of the chair. Therefore, displaying how the painting is twice removed from the reality of the idea. 

On the contrary, Aristotle believed in life as an imitation of art. Justifying that the artist does not simply reflect the concrete object in the manner of a mirror. Even so, it only gives likeness to the concrete form, which is always less than original. He believed that art cannot be a slavish copy of reality and the difference lies in the artist’s purpose of his re-presentation of work. It involves a coherent injection of the artist’s perception of reality, incorporating elements of selected events and characters, which brings about personal value and experiences. This in turn reveals truths and essence of an object we otherwise would not have noticed in its raw form. 

Formerly, there was an existing gap between that of art and life, and most people believed that a painting is merely an imitation of all living things. In the early 1940s, the idea of art as imitation dissipated with the birth of the Abstract Expressionism movement. With the anxiety and trauma, World War 2 has brought on, expressionist art acted as a form of escapism from the intensifying politically charged atmosphere. It instilled a shift in the relationship between art and life, replacing previous theories of associating art with the tangible, such as cultural and political agendas; with intangibility, such as art in the form of aesthetic purposes and self expression– the display of the artist’s ideals, emotions and unconscious mind. 

This change attributed to the increase in significance placed on an individual’s thought process and feelings. Adjusting the ways people interact with art, focusing on what they got out of a piece rather than simply trying to decipher the artist’s motive behind it.  The relationship between art and life is an archetype of cause and effect. Human beings tend to view art as a reaction and insight into human nature. Using art as a medium to voice out their opinions on current matters and showcasing the aftermath of internalising specific news and knowledge – art imitating life. The reaction thereafter acts as a reference point on what the viewer has comprehended, in other words their takeaway and personal interpretations put into application in reality– life imitating art.

So, the question is, does removing something from the context of its everyday environment dilutes its initial purpose of creation or make the product any less than it actually is? In retrospect, the context of the presence does not override that of the past. It adds depth to the evolution of that specific ‘something’, highlighting the versatile yet ephemeral nature of art and life.

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