Imitationalism is an aesthetic theory which holds that a good work of art is one which accurately depicts the real world. This theory holds that merit in the arts is related to the truth of a work, in particular to its depicting external reality (as opposed to expressionism or emotionalism, which holds emotional truth to be paramount).

In terms of artistic practice, imitationalism is linked to realism, the artistic practice that seeks the natural representation of its subjects. Great artists in this philosophy would include visual artists Michelangelo (who studied anatomy to accurately depict the human form, and in his biblical paintings sought to present the world of the Bible) and Pieter Bruegel the Younger (for his wonderfully-detailed scenes), while Edvard Munch or Pablo Picasso would be ridiculed. Among novelists it privileges those such as Emile Zola, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, who give an accurate description of a particular place and time, above those such as Franz Kafka who focus on emotion and interior life.

There have been repeated movements in art towards accurate representation, in accordance with an imitationalist philosophy. These range in the visual arts from the invention of perspective in the early Renaissance, to the neo-classical revival of the eighteenth century (Jacques-Louis David, Antonio Canova) and recent superrealist painting (Ralph Goings, Richard Estes). Early photography aspired to give an accurate representation of the real world and this trend continues in modern documentary and some portrait photography, but since then photographers many have moved away from an imitationalist perspective to try and create non-naturalistic images, for example in the work of Man Ray.

As a philosophy for determining artistic worth, imitationalism has obvious problems with abstract art, and particularly with music. It is hard to say if music resembles anything in particular, and appears ludicrous to judge the success of a symphony on how closely it mirrors natural sounds. It is also worth noting that even the most realistic painting does not present the world as it is actually perceived, being two-dimensional and static; and still less does a novel.

Although it has been largely rejected by modern critics, especially with the rise in abstract art this century, imitiationalism is a belief with a long history, and has been predominant for much of the time that people have been making art in the Western tradition. Its main opponent through history has been the belief in art as an expression of emotion, a theory called expressionism or emotionalism, which is commonly linked with the philosophy of romanticism, just as imitiationalism is linked to classicism.

Among ancient philosophy, Plato was an imitationalist; he viewed art as an imitation of the world, and disliked it because of its detachment from the world of ideal Platonic forms. However Aristotle focused more on art's social role, an approach known as instrumentalism. Modern aesthetics has moved away from imitationalism due in part to modernist and postmodern critiques of meaning: from Ferdinand de Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein to Jacques Derrida. The dominant theories in the second half of the twentieth century have been the aesthetic formalism of Monroe Beardsley, and the institutionalism of Arthur C. Danto who holds that art is simply a commodity which gains its value from being traded by art dealers. However, there is still considerable academic interest in how an art object can be said to represent the real world. Meanwhile much modern art, from Marcel Duchamp onwards, appears designed as an attack on any concept of artistic value.

In comparison with imitationalism, the other main philosophies of artistic value are emotionalism (or expressionism), which focuses on art as the communication of emotion; formalism (which holds that artistic form, the relationship between the components of an artwork, is most important), instrumentalism (the belief that good art has a social purpose) and institutionalism (which holds that the merits of an artwork are decided by art-world institutions such as galleries and critics).

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