Life imitating art  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Life imitating art is the reverse of the normal process whereby art is made to resemble life. The concept derives from an Oscar Wilde aphorism, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life." Wilde follows Ovid who, in Book 3 of the Metamorphoses, depicts a scene where "Nature in her genius had imitated art." (He is describing Diana's grotto in the story of Cadmus:"arte laboratum nulla: simulaverat artem / ingenio natura suo.")



Anti-mimesis is a philosophical position that holds the direct opposite of mimesis. Its most notable proponent is Oscar Wilde, who held in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life". In the essay, written as a Platonic dialogue, Wilde holds that such anti-mimesis "results not merely from Life's imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.". (McGrath1999)

Wilde's antimimetic philosophy has had influence on later writers, including Brian Friel. McGrath places it in a tradition of Irish writing, including Wilde and writers such as Synge and Joyce that "elevate[s] blarney (in the form of linguistic idealism) to aesthetic and philosophical distinction", noting that Terry Eagleton observes an even longer tradition that stretches "as far back in Irish thought as the ninth-century theology of John Scottus Eriugena" and "the fantastic hyperbole of the ancient sagas". Wilde's antimimetic idealism, specifically, McGrath describes to be part of the late nineteenth century debate between Romanticism and Realism.

Antimimesis, as set out by Wilde in Decay of Lying is the reverse of the Aristotelian principle of mimesis. Far from art imitating life, as mimesis would hold, Wilde holds that art sets the aesthetic principles by which people perceive life. What is found in life and nature is not what is really there, but is that which artists have taught people to find there, through art. Wilde presents the fogs of London as an example, arguing that although "there may have been fogs for centuries in London", people have only "seen" the "wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and turning houses into shadows" because "poets and painters have taught [people] the loveliness of such effects". "They did not exist", asserts Wilde, "till Art had invented them.".

Halliwell asserts that "far from constituting the ne plus ultra of antimimeticism", the notion that life imitates art actually derives from classical notions that can be traced as far back as the writings of Aristophanes of Byzantium, and does not negate mimesis but rather "displace[s] its purpose onto the artlike fashioning of life itself". Halliwell draws a parallel between Wilde's philosophy and Aristophanes' famous question about the comedies written by Menander: "O Menander and Life! Which of you took the other as your model?", noting, however, that Aristophanes was a pre-cursor to Wilde, and not necessarily espousing the positions that Wilde was later to propound.

George Bernard Shaw agreed with Wilde. In his preface to Three Plays he wrote "I have noticed that when a certain type of feature appears in painting and is admired as beautiful, it presently becomes common in nature; so that the Beatrices and Francescas in the picture galleries of one generation come to life as the parlor-maids and waitresses of the next.". He stated that he created the aristocratic characters in Cashel Byron's Profession as more priggish than real aristocrats because at the time of writing he had yet to discover that "what [he] supposed to be the real world does not exist, and that men and women are made by their own fancies in the image of the imaginary creatures in [his] youthful fictions, only much stupider". Shaw, however, disagreed with Wilde on some points. He considered most attempts by life to imitate art to be reprehensible, in part because the art that people generally chose to imitate was idealistic and romanticized.


  • The 1898 novella Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan, about a supposedly indestructible ocean liner which sinks after colliding with an iceberg, has been noted to contain a remarkable number of parallels with the real-life sinking of RMS Titanic, which occurred in 1912 - fourteen years after the story's publication.
  • It has been reported that the prevalence of CSI and other crime investigation TV shows have changed criminal behavior. For example, the use of bleach to destroy DNA evidence has increased, as a result.
  • Astronomers who took a picture of the star V838 Monocerotis remarked that it seems to imitate Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night.
  • The release of the 2006 film Night at the Museum, which depicted the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as having its attendance increase dramatically at the end of the film, resulted in the real American Museum of Natural History's attendance increasing after the film's release. Christmas season attendance increased by 20% over the previous year.

Example: Gabriele d'Annunzio

Many examples exist in history. For example Italian nationalist Gabriele d'Annunzio, known as the "poet-warrior", scripted the epic Cabiria (1914), which used the Roman salute. D'Annunzio appropriated the salute when he occupied Fiume in 1919. D'Annunzio has been described as the John the Baptist of Italian Fascism, as virtually the entire ritual of Fascism was invented by D'Annunzio during his occupation of Fiume and his leadership of the "Italian Regency of Carnaro". Besides the Roman salute, these included the balcony address, the cries of "Eia, eia, eia! Alala!", the dramatic and rhetorical dialogues with the crowd, and the use of religious symbols in new secular settings. Like other neo-Imperial rituals utilized by D'Annunzio, the salute became part of the Italian fascist movements symbolic repertoire and later adopted by Nazi Germany as the Hitler salute.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Life imitating art" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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