It is a platitude of traditional aesthetics that art is the imitation of nature. It is not unusual for this sentence to be interpreted as normative, but it is practically impossible to support the theory even if imitation is not made mandatory for art. It is contradicted / corrected by art in practice: art does not imitate, it keeps its distance; it does away with the corset into which we are forced by the existing world (nature, society) by eliminating and surpassing what already is. Art has therefore been accused of being artificial. This accusation is fair neither to art nor to nature, however, because it makes the unspoken assumption that art is not of this world and that nature is static. Anyone who vilifies what is claimed to be artificial as unnatural cements the existing conditions. The tendency to create a division between nature and art therefore needs to be countered by considering how the imitating and surpassing theories, which are said to be contradictory, can be reconciled with each other. In other words, the question that needs to be answered is whether a basic theory can be developed that incorporates both “opposites” and, if at all possible, reconciles them.
If nature and art are interpreted not as opposites but as two sides of the coin which has been given the name “reality”, then the result is: art anticipates the dormant possibilities of nature (potential reality) and makes them visible – as staged pseudo-reality. Potential reality is concealed, on the one hand, because it can only develop in the course of time, i.e. gradually, and cannot be realised simultaneously, all at the same time (at least, not in the world that we are familiar with).
Purpose of art
On the other hand, there are obstacles to the development of potential reality that can in principle be eliminated – against resistance that is sometimes more and sometimes less fierce (political and economic balance of power, conventions, fashion, habits). Put in somewhat dramatic terms, the purpose of art is to liberate nature to be itself, to “imitate” its inherent potential, i.e. to help it to become reality.
In this interpretation, the surpassing theory therefore incorporates (or “overrides”) the imitation theory. “Imitation of nature” cannot as a result be abused as dogmatic handcuffs any longer; it can be seen instead as free, liberating creation.
About art and artificiality
Art could only be described as “artificial”, if it claimed that the pseudo-reality it stages was “true” nature, “actual” reality, a kind of hyper-reality behind the scenes and alleged that it surpassed everything else. Art would lose its subversive power in this case and would reduce nature to what is only part of the truth. Art only remains true to itself if it intimates in what it is and produces that everything could be completely different instead. By creating something, art at the same time negates and already tries to go beyond the perspective it currently holds.
It is only thanks to these incessant, art-driven changes in perspective that we are able even to sense what reality in all its richness means – something that we can never fully understand and that we can only experience in fragmentary form.
What art has to offer is only fragmentary too, but it acts on behalf of what is not fragmentary and demonstrates to us that the search for entirety is a never-ending task. Art helps us to leave convention and ossification behind us. To do this, it makes use of concepts, processes and materials that arrange the world in the work in a way that it is “not yet”, but can be imagined or brought to light via creative use of the imagination. And in reflecting on the work, we see the world as we know it with different eyes, find a new attitude towards it. Provided our focus on art enables us to train our minds in such a way that we overcome conventional perception patterns or at least break free from them for a time.
Plastic as an ideal medium for art to express itself
Working with plastics artistically neither makes art artificial nor does it produce “substitute nature”. On the contrary: the material helps artists to give what is possible a real form – ideally in a way that other materials are unable to do (otherwise the plastic would merely be a substitute material). Plastics make art more artistic rather than more artificial. “Nature imitates art” is how Oscar Wilde turned the old aesthetic principle round. A clever remark that confused and provoked his contemporaries – which was perhaps Wilde’s strongest motive.
The sentence has depth even so. In view of the thinking that has been outlined here, it can be explained as follows: nature is shown its own potential in art, because art anticipates what is possible. Nature finds itself, catches up with itself and in fact is only able to keep up with its own potential when it imitates art.
Due to all these interrelationships, plastics can even take on natural characteristics in art, as if they were part of nature. When polyurethane foam resembles lava, for example, the idea that nature is something which is encountered is transformed into the conviction that nature is something that has been produced. Art with natural characteristics reveals, if you like, the fact that nature is a work in progress too. The inherent powers the material has to form and create become issues, in the same way they are in the work of art itself. Paradoxically enough, one loses sight of the material artificiality of the work of art in this context – at least for a time – while it is not forgotten completely, because the work is only reminiscent of nature and must not be confused with it.
Plastic as a source of the arts
The situation is different when plastics act as copies in everyday contexts and are not supposed to be distinguishable from marble, wood or metals at the visual level. “People find this so satisfying that they sometimes even process (genuine!) leather or fabrics in such a way that they look like a plastic imitation. The natural originals gradually become less interesting to them; their attention is restricted to the symbols and the appearance of the things that are sometimes ‘more genuine than nature’ “ writes the French artist and philosopher Hervé Fischer (born in 1941) in his 1973 essay “Hygiene of art”. It is reported, on the other hand, that a contemporary of Fischer, the French sculptor César Baldaccini (1921 – 1998), once said: “I would be interested in making imitations, but only on the condition that they are recognisable as imitations.”
In other words: art that “imitates” destroys the illusion – irrespective of whether it uses natural or synthetic materials in its imitation exercise. Plastics in art are not therefore their sentence to death; on the contrary, they are in actual fact a rejuvenating force that can be a source of new forms of artistic expression.